Read the Bible the Old School Way

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What does it mean to have a “biblical hermeneutic”? That is the question that Abner Chou sets out to answer in his Hermeneutics of the Biblical Writers. To sort this out, one must recognize the pattern of development from the prophetic writers of the Old Testament, the writers of the New Testament, and how these writers interpreted the Scripture which came before them (22). If you’ve read any G. K. Beale or Kevin J. Vanhoozer, then you’ll be familiar with some of this argument. The idea is not an entirely new one: essentially, present day Christians are to imitate the hermeneutical practices of the Biblical authors, while also submitting to these ancient writers’ authority.

Chou charts the argument in a systematic and easy to follow manner. Jesus serves as the first model, demonstrating the need for 1) authorial intent, 2) grasping the meaning of the text, and 3) employing an intertextual reading (41-43). Essential to this argument is the recognition that Christians must beware “putting illegitimate restrictions on the author” of the Biblical text (45). Chou then goes on to work chronologically. He demonstrates how the prophets interpreted the Law and History books in an expected manner, while also breaking from norms to recognize meanings in the text that might have gone unnoticed originally (90-91). This is made possible by their concern for the future, enabling later interpreters to further develop the ideas stated in the prophetic books (120).

The apostles built upon this method. Chou argues for seeing continuity between the Testaments based upon this claim, specifically because of the claims which the apostles themselves made taking “the Old Testament as the basis for their reasoning” (152). He demonstrates this through a sample of the New Testament authors’s writings in terms of redemptive history and their usage of the Hebrew scriptures. Thus, through historical and literary examinations, coupled with exegetical exercises such as word studies, the present day Christian can enter into the tradition laid out by the Biblical writers (202-208). Chou sees this as important for every Christian, not just the scholar, even if it is not always easy to employ his prescribed methods (229).

Chou’s book is full of footnotes and contains a significant bibliography (which spans 18 pages). Despite this rather scholarly form, Chou manages to make his thesis rather accessible to a wide range of readers. Scholars will benefit from his engagement with other major thinkers on the topic of authorial intent (such as Peter Enns). Likewise, the lay reader can make use of his practical suggestions in how to read the Bible like the New Testament authors might have. Chou’s writing is clear and concise, a rarity in academic writing, and I have no doubt that this book will be a great help to anyone who wishes to better understand how to read and study their Bible.

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For Even the Very Wise Cannot See All Ends

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It is no secret that the Wisdom Literature of the Old Testament is one hand beautiful and on the other hand challenging. Job constantly breaks away from what is conventional wisdom, both in the past and in the present. Proverbs offers snippets in the other direction, only to have Ecclesiastes push again towards a less common view. And Song of Songs, well, its a bit too racy for most Sunday mornings. And yet, these are some of the most beloved books of the Old Testament, frequently the subject of studies and devotionals. Part of this stems from the tension between their plain meaning and the difficult aspects of the texts. In an effort to help provide some ways forward on this front, Edward Curtis has penned the latest edition to Kregel Academic‘s Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis. I have written previously on my admiration for the entries on the Prophets and the Apocalyptic writings. So I won’t rehash things like layout or form of the book.

Perhaps the reason these books are so helpful is because they offer a perspective into things that a lay person might otherwise be unfamiliar with, but they do not create a sense that the Bible is impossible to understand without this other information. Take, for instance, Curtis’s exploration of the Ancient Near East literary context for the Wisdom books. Though he explains that such background information “sometimes brings clarifying insight to meaning that would not be apparent to a reader today” (90), he recognizes the methods of understanding these books in the past still have value, even if they did not depend on this kind of specialized knowledge (86). This kind of thinking is prevalent throughout the book, and invites interpreters to work within a broad framework for understanding.

The book also has helpful explorations on how to develop a sermon out of these texts, which are inherently practical already, as well as a brief excursus on the digital resources out there for exegeting the Wisdom literature. These appendices are incredibly helpful in light of technological developments in the last couple of decades. Though Curtis uses all of this to explore books like Job and Ecclesiastes most, I found these tools most helpful in reading through the Song of Songs. The Ancient Near East context for “apples” and “lilies” are simply things I am not likely to encounter in most of reading, so Curtis gave me something to truly consider when trying to analyze some of this challenging, yet beautiful poetry (90). These images, along with other garden types, remind the reader that Song of Songs is poetic in the sense that it does not always warrant criticism, lest the reader “explain the joke” (139). Curtis brings this common sense approach to the whole of the genre, making the reader acutely aware of the limitations of criticism on this kind of writing.

While the book does not set out to solve any long lasting debates, Interpreting the Wisdom Books serves as a helpful and important primer on how to engage these specific books. It is a starting point, a place of departure. Curtis’s admonition, “to approach the task with humility and openness both to the text and to the insights of those whose work reflects the strengths we lack,” summarizes precisely why such a book is vital to any students of Bible, be it pastors or Sunday School teachers or busy moms trying to raise four kids (110).

Suggested Reading for Shepherds and Servants

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Having spent some time in seminary classrooms, if I’m being honest, when someone suggests a new book on Biblical leadership I get a bit nauseous. It is not that I find the topic boring or irrelevant, but because I have found the publishing field full of soft books written to make leadership “easy” and palatable. “Here’s ten ways to manage a congregation so that you can have Saturday all to yourself!” While such practical issues do matter, I find the self-help concept to be contrary to Christian leadership. As such, I was not overly excited about a book subtitled Theology for the Everyday Leader. But Forrest and Roden’s table of contents challenged me to look beyond the cover, with names like Benjamin Merkle, Andreas Kostenberger, and Robert B. Chisholm Jr. (to name only a few) telling me that there was something else going on within these leaves.

It would be next to impossible to give the book any serious treatment in the space of a blog post. There are some chapters that need some deep push-back (such as “The Priestly Prism” by David M. Maas), while there are others that push back against my own view such that I was greatly challenged by them (like “Conflict Resolution” by Stanley Porter). So given such constraints, I’d rather highlight a couple of essays which I think represent the core of the book. These essays bring the best of biblical interpretation to bear on the way church leaders operate in a modern context, and present these matters in a broad enough way (while not abandoning the position of the author) so that any stripe of Christian might benefit from their insights.

The first essay worth consideration is Tremper Longman’s “Leading in a Fallen World: Leadership in Ecclesiastes” (172-183). Longman has a particular view on Ecclesiastes, and he unpacks his two narrator framework at the beginning. Regardless of one’s agreement, Longman deftly maneuvers throughout the enigmatic Old Testament book to show how “‘under the sun’ thinking” is helpful to earthly leaders, even if it is not enough (176). But this is to be balanced with the “above the sun” wisdom that can also be found in Ecclesiastes (180). The views work together to suggest how a leader might “remove thorns and thistles from our gardens” knowing that they will “grow back” sooner than we’d like (182). Longman weaves Hebrew exegesis, historical studies, and interpretive questions into one big picture about leadership for the Christian living in the present. It is an excellent example of how the Ivory Tower and the Man on the Street should be connected.

The second essay is Joseph Hellerman’s “Community and Relationships: Leadership in Pauline Theology” (423-437). I’ve encountered Hellerman’s ideas before, and found much of those previous ideas present in his two essays included in this volume. But the format allowed for interesting insights. Even if one does not adhere to Hellerman’s plurality format for leadership, his exposition of Paul’s relational approach (430) and the various ways this is evidenced in Paul’s letters (432) will challenge church leaders to consider the way they relate to those who are part of the congregation.

Biblical Leadership is a resource that every pastor, lay leader, or Christian leader outside the church would do well to have on hand. The essays allow for a “take one” approach, so that the essays that seem pertinent can be explored at will. But every essay brings something to the table for leaders to consider. Shepherds and servants should spend some time digging deep into the Biblical explorations within these pages.

Virgil’s Marital Advice

Christians often decry the sexual values of the postmodern world. The idea of cohabitation, homosexual activity, and even polyamorous situations are discussed as though they are vices which will weaken a culture. What is not surprising is that simultaneously divorce rates continue to rise and abuse within marriages manifests in unions at every level of society. Do these signs serve as a reminder that our culture has much in common with Ancient Rome? The charge has been leveled, and it has become a bit of a sport to compare national leaders with famous Roman men of the State. But perhaps the most significant parallel between this present age and the Roman classical era is not a comparison of vices, but rather the idea that there were always those present who rejected such practices. In Virgil’s Aeneid, a reader will find just such commentary on the Roman idea of marriage.

It should be noted that Virgil was not the only one during his day to make positive contributions to the Roman concept of marriage. Horace, a contemporary poet most often known for his satirical writings,  even went as far as to say, “Happy, happy, happy those, / Bound by fast and equal ties— / Love that no division knows, / Love that never faints or dies.” Even the historian Livy dedicates substantial amounts of his history of Rome to the early marriages that should serve as the proper models for later Romans to follow. While the politicians around them seemed content to turn a blind eye to, or even participate in, all of the ways in which Rome had lost any view of the sanctity of marriage, there were some who had not yet moved on from that foundational institution. Virgil used a few key moments in his epic, The Aeneid, to add his voice to the chorus calling out for a better understanding of Roman marriage.

In his flight from Rome, Aeneas abandons Creusa during the escape (II.959-966). Perhaps this is the first evidence of a horrid husband? But instead, Virgil tells us, that despite the pleas of his people and the low probability of success, Aeneas “turned back alone / Into the city, cinching my bright harness. / Nothing for it but to run the risks / Again, go back again, comb all of Troy, / And put my life in danger as before” (II.975-979). These are not the actions of a man who thinks only of himself, or even of his legacy to future generations. In this moment, Aeneas can think of nothing except his great love for his wife. If any Trojan were going to “enjoy life with the wife whom [they] love . . . because that is [their] portion in life and in [their] toil at which [they] toil under the sun,” it would be Aeneas (Ecc. 9:9, ESV). Aeneas’ love is so great, that the very ghost of Creusa returned to tell him that his mission was in vain, and that he had to move for the sake of their son, if nothing else (II.1000-1046). Virgil could have had a hero as cold and calculating as Homer’s Achilleus. Or, he could have provided Aeneas with a mistress to rescue as well. But instead, Virgil gives him one wife, a pious wife, whom Aeneas loved greatly.

The story of Aeneas and Dido is a bit trickier to navigate. While it would be easy to treat Dido and Aeneas’ love story as though it were no marriage, but rather simply two consenting adults, Virgil says otherwise: “Primal Earth herself and Nuptial Juno / Opened the ritual, torches of lightning blazed, / High Heaven became witness to the marriage, / And nymphs cried out wild hymns from a mountain top” (IV.229-232). Though Aeneas would go on to deny that their relationship is any such thing, his denial will in fact condemn Dido to the flames (IV.467-468; 233-234). This is not merely political posturing or narrative tool; Dido’s actions would have had dire consequences for his kingdom if Aeneas denied being her husband. For every neighboring kingdom knew that they had been acting as though wed, and without the formal vows to seal it, claims of immorality or unfitness could easily have been hurled her way. But Aeneas is denying what Juno had affirmed. If the right thing is to live by the code: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate,” Aeneas falls woefully short of the mark (Mark 10:9, ESV). But perhaps that is Virgil’s point? Aeneas’ choice here is a bad one, and it sets the stage for his third marriage once he lands in Italy.

As Aeneas initially plans to unite the Latins and Trojans through his marriage to Lavinia, snatching her away from her fiance Turnus in the process, Juno intercedes. She sends Allecto to stir up trouble, and out of the mouth of Queen Amata comes the condemnation of treating marriage so lightly: “Mothers of Latium, listen, / Wherever you may be: if your good hearts / Feel any kindness still for poor Amata, / Any concern for justice to a mother, / Shake your headbands loose, take up the revel / Along with me” (VII.552-557). Amata is protecting her child, at Juno’s behest, from marrying a man who is not committed to keeping his vows. It is not until Aeneas goes through much pain and trial that Juno relents and agrees to the union with Lavinia. Virgil highlights the consequences of treating marriage lightly, and cautions against straying from first principles as Aeneas did; once willing to die for his first wife, he brings about the death of his second in the name of his country, and is denied a peaceful establishment as a result. In some ways, Virgil’s view of marriage might even supersede many enlightened folks today.

 

Bibliography

Virgil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1990.

Interpreting Women with Fear & Trembling

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Turn your head in any direction these days, and a discussion of gender is bound to be heard nearby. Naturally, this current cultural attention will also mean that books explaining the phenomenon, or ensuring its relevance is understood, populate book stores and online shopping carts en masse. There are those who will ignore such publications, those who flock to them, and those like me who are intrigued, but lack a sufficient entry point. Kregel Academic’s latest book serves as just such a starting place.

Vindicating the Vixens, edited by Sandra Glahn, is a collection of essays which seeks to evaluate the women found in the Bible who are often rated as second class actors, or in some way blamed for sinful actions which then disqualifies them as models of righteous behavior. Glahn is clear from the outset that the book is not an attempt to rewrite orthodox belief, but rather to use new tools and information to gain a clearer reading of the text. “Perhaps new data does not answer all our questions, but it may help us ask better questions,” (17). And as virtually every exegetical improvement over the years would attest, Glahn is right.

Perhaps the most striking thing about this book is the atrocious theology that it seeks to correct. I count myself blessed to have received the theological education I have over the last two decades, but in all my travels I have never heard of such awful exegesis and interpretation as is detailed in this book. Carolyn Custis James’s essay on Tamar and Eva Bleeker’s essay on Rahab begin with horrific accounts of pastors rendering highly suspect interpretations of the respective texts (see 43 & 50 for examples). I frequently found myself shocked by such accounts. Who could honestly read Ruth and come away with the idea that she behaved like “nothing more than a common harlot for initiating a marriage proposal to a man she had known for mere months” (59)?  If these are the kinds of things women routinely hear, then I can imagine that they would be frustrated. In this way, Vindicating the Vixens primarily offers a faithful reading of the text. The essays are well-written, and filled with great insight, but most of the points made are things that a straightforward reading of the texts in question should afford. That the state of Christian interpretation has reached a point where a book such as this is necessary seems sad.

But I don’t want to overstate the case, here. Vindicating is more than a corrective. It is a collection with an eclectic combination of male and female writers, who do not always agree, but who strive for submission to the text of Scripture. And the individual voices heard throughout the book provide a balanced, engaging perspective for every reader to consider. Even if you are like me, and find much of this information straightforward, there is still something to be learned. Two of the stand out essays are Christa McKirkland’s examination of Huldah (213-232) and Amy Peeler’s essay on Junia (273-285). For all my years of studying the Bible, I could remember hardly anything about these women, and these essays revealed just why I should keep them in mind.

Ultimately, I don’t think I can recommend this book enough. The importance of handling every story in the Bible with care and reverence cannot be underestimated. Vindicating the Vixens does just that, and provides the necessary background information and interpretive tools to help Christians read the women of the Bible the way the original authors intended.

Job and Prometheus in Conversation

In the Biblical account of Job, one of the primary themes found is that of unmasking. The hidden courts and councils of God are revealed, with the very enemy of God having access to His throne (1:6). The conventional wisdom of Job’s day, that material blessings denoted righteousness while wickedness was evidenced by cursing, is also unmasked, exposed as a nonsensical way of looking at the world (36:5-12). And of course Job is unmasked: his piety is revealed to not be without its own sense of pride, and his infinitesimally small place in the universe is shown to him in concrete ways as God responds to Job’s complaints (38:4-7). As these masks fall away, a true vision is shown to the reader, one which recognizes the Creator of the universe while understanding that His very existence defies understanding. The veil is pulled back, and the truth seems to only muddy the waters.

The Hebrew people were not the only ones to wrestle with such topics and suffering and justice. The Greeks, some five hundred years later, would make such queries the primary themes of Sophocles’ Theban Plays and Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound. However, while Oedipus might be shown to have a fault or two of his own which led to his downfall, it is only in Aeschylus’ Prometheus play that a rival for Job can be found. Like Job, Prometheus found himself suffering after having done only the right thing (lns. 92-100). Again, like Job, Prometheus’ only recourse was to seek answers for his relief, and found comfort in the promise of a deliverer (lns. 780-781). And in the end, Prometheus’ suffering would not last eternally, and his accuser would not persuade him to think of himself as sinful (lns. 165-176). But for all these similarities, the loud, striking contrasts must be remembered.

To the Greek mind, such suffering drove the even the gods to wish for death, as Prometheus declares early in his suffering (lns. 152-159). But to the Hebrews, such a thought was surely a sign of something less than righteousness, a sign that one had given up and truly deserved death (2:9-10). The suffering of Prometheus is a confirmation that the good will suffer, specifically at the hands of the gods, for no good deed can redeem someone from an unjust tyrant. But Job knows the falsehood of such a notion: “Let me be weighed in a just balance, and let God know my integrity!” (31:6). Unlike the Zeus Prometheus knew all too well, everything Job knows of the Lord tells him that God is just and will recognize integrity when it is before Him. This is the strength of the Biblical understanding of suffering.

God is not petty, and He does not hold grudges against His people. His gracious expands to the point where He “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). Prometheus knows only injustice from the king of the gods, however: “I know that he’s savage, his justice a thing he keeps by his own standard,” (lns. 186-187). For Prometheus, and his audience, the ultimate comfort can only be found in the idea that even the vicious, selfish ruler of divinities will one day be held account by the Furies, “for he too cannot escape what is fated,” (lns. 518). Suffering is unavoidable, but at least that is true for Zeus too! By contrast, Job sees a way out: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth,” (19:25). God’s justice extends to the righteous and the unrighteous, to those who serve Him and those who do not. And this justice is tapered with the grace and mercy that only the Lord can offer, which will see its ultimate fulfillment manifested when the Deliverer steps into existence, and walks among His creation. The Greeks cannot rest in such hope, for their culture and dreams are crafted by the one subjugated to torture by the god of justice (lns. 505-506). The dichotomy between these things is why suffering is also one dimensional; to suffer punishment is to be under the judgement of the Greek gods, but they have no true claim to wield such power. But for Job, suffering is purposeful and meaningful. Though he does not see it at first, Job realizes that God’s ways are never devoid of hope nor reason, and his repentance shows that he can endure suffering in a far more gracious way than the Cursed Titan might ever hope to do.

Bibliography

Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound. In Aeschylus I, translated by David Grene, Richard Lattimore, Mark Griffith, and Glenn W. Most. 3rd Edition, 165-216. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Job. In The Holy Bible: English Standard Version, 267-286. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.

Isaiah 11: An Advent Reflection

This was originally delivered at Trinitas Christian School, for the first annual Lessons & Carols service.

From the outset of Isaiah’s vision, the Messiah will be someone set apart. It is not only that they will resume the line of kingship through the tree of David, though He will certainly do that. Isaiah tells us in no uncertain terms that the coming savior will operate out of the abundance of the Spirit of God. Wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and the fear of the Lord. Such attributes will guide the Messiah as He comes to set the world aright. And through what means will the savior accomplish such things? How will He know where evil and injustice have taken root?

Isaiah anticipates such a question. He tells that the Messiah will sense righteousness through the fear of the Lord. But what might this mean? When we eliminate our senses relating to sight and hearing, as Isaiah does, what remains? Touch obviously. Taste as well. And then there is smell. Isaiah tells us in verse 3 that God’s messiah will not judge by sight nor by hearing. So what does this mean? Will the Christ taste his way to righteousness? Or perhaps feel around as though blind? Isaiah says that is through the coming savior’s “delight . . . in the fear of the Lord.” And in Hebrew, the word delight also means “smell.” So, will the messiah follow his nose to righteousness? In a sense, yes. Our eyes are easily deceived, and as any parent with children might attest, our hearing fails us often. But our nose? A keen sense of smell can make all the difference; a pleasing aroma can stick with someone for an extended time, while a foul odor might cause a very physical reaction. The sense of smell is one of the most powerful attributes a person has.

Perhaps this takes the picture too far, but it helps to get closer to what Isaiah is saying: the Christ will sense justice with a fine-tuned accuracy that is based in a reverence for the Lord. This sense will enable the Christ to not only identify the wicked, covered in the foul stench of sin, but He will then remove every trace of injustice and wrong from the world. Clothed in righteousness, the messiah will bring about an entirely different order, that makes God’s kingdom the only power on the earth. Thus, the wicked “shall not hurt nor destroy” anything on God’s holy mountain, and for the first time since Genesis 1, God’s presence will permeate the globe. Just as God took up residence in His temple of the entire created order on day seven, the earth will again fill the knowledge of who the Creator is.

Of course, this entire passage echoes so much of the Genesis account, that it should not be dismissed as coincidence. Animals and man, living together in peace. “The leopard shall lie down with the young goat” while “the nursing child shall play by the cobra’s hole.” And the knowledge of God enveloping the world, just as His Spirit hovered over the deep in Genesis 1:2. It is sometimes difficult to envision the presence of God penetrating where we live. We have grown accustomed to thinking of God as being present only in limited circumstances. And there is good reason for us to do so, particularly at Advent. It is a reminder that the end has not yet come. In the appearance of the Christ, laid in a manger, is the emergence of all which Isaiah describes. It is not the fulfillment, mind you, but it is the breaking of dawn after a long, long night.

The image Isaiah paints of the lion and the ox dining upon grass together should be jarring. Everything we know the lion, from the form of his teeth to the strength of his paw, tells us that straw is not what he was made to eat. But Isaiah uses this picture to show us how different the kingdom of God will be. Mankind has been trying to return to Eden ever since we were expelled, but it is to the future that the prophet directs our eyes. The vision Isaiah is given is not a return to the idyllic past, but a restoration of creation through a new act of God; and all of this is completed through the reign of His righteous ruler. This is not a singular promise to humanity, but to all creation. Animosity in every sense of the word will be put away, and God’s kingdom will be established in tranquility. As a result of the Messiah’s righteousness and faithfulness, peace will reign “as the waters cover the sea.”

Bibliography

Goldingay, John. Isaiah for Everyone. London: SPCK Publishing, 2015.

Sparing the Rod and Ruining the Parishioner

9780825444456There are few people who enjoy talking about church discipline. Sure, there is the occasional pastor or elder, who probably talks quite a bit about how things used to be, that will speak up when a church member should be brought under the guidance of 1 Corinthians 5. And most will likely shake their head, and move on in the conversation as though nothing had been said. But as Jeremy M. Kimble is quick to point out, that would be a mistake.

Dr. Kimble is a professor of Cedarville University, and he is the author of 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline from Kregel Academic. And he takes both issues of Christian living seriously (he even wrote his dissertation on church discipline). This passion for an historically droll topic translates into a fairly engaging book that sets a practicable and faithful standard for understanding membership in the local church, and the discipline which is a part of that. With that said, go ahead a get the book. It is worth your time.

As for the details, the book is part of a series from Kregel called 40 Questions About (I reviewed their entry on the Historical Jesus topic as well as the volume looking at the creation debate a while back). Series like this are written for generalists, not specialists, and they aim to present information in a simple, digestible format that is as thorough as it can be. I think this is important to understand up front, because otherwise a review of such a work can easily fall into nitpicking at details which most likely belong in a systematic or extended treatment. If you are a pastor researching the legality of church discipline, this is only a starting point. Such a project will require a different resource. Likewise, if a church member is looking for an exposition on baptism as a requirement for membership, you would do best to look elsewhere. But remember, this book is not meant to be those things.

Consider Kimble’s treatment of 1 Corinthians 5, which only occupies 5 pages of the book. Someone expecting a detailed exegetical study will be sorely disappointed with the simple approach that Kimble takes. But that is why they should begin with the Pillar Commentary or the Baker Exegetical Commentary to get such a linguistic breakdown. Kimble’s take is not flawed, but it is narrow. “What does 1 Corinthians 5 say about church discipline?” In a nutshell, “that this is a non-negotiable matter” and that it is an act of love to “root out unrepentant sin” so that the individual  “will awaken . . . from their sinful propensities” and renew their call to holiness (159).

Such issues are not explored ad infinitum in this work, nor should they be. 40 Questions About Church Membership and Discipline does exactly what it should: it hits the high points of debate, and offers a snapshot answer which ought to provoke the inquisitive to further reading on the matter. As such, Kimble’s work is a welcome entry on a topic that receives far too little attention in the modern church, and I whole-heartedly recommend it to pastors and laymen alike.

Going Back to the Beginning

I reviewed volume 3 of Allen Ross’s commentary on the Psalms some time ago. It seems a bit backwards, starting at the end and only then going to the beginning, but I was so thoroughly impressed with volume 3 that I thought it would be worth my time to work through volume 1 and 2 as well. Volume 2 is waiting for me to crack open its spine, and as each volume comes in at around 930 pages, it might be waiting for a while yet.

41RK4MMfRgLThe style, layout, and approach in this volume is the same as in volume 3, so I don’t feel the need to revisit it is great detail. In my previous review, I highlighted the ease of interacting with the structure of Ross’s work, and the treasure trove of information that he provides for each Psalm. What sets this volume apart is the lengthy introductory essay in the front.

Composing almost 200 pages of the first volume, it covers the necessary explanations of Ross’ approach, and how to make the most of these commentaries. While the essay was not necessary for my reading of volume 3, having now spent some time with it, I dearly wished I had read, at the very least, “Literary Forms and Functions in the Psalms” (p. 111-145). Ross handles the minutiae of this section throughout his exegesis, but I found his summary and his presentation of the big picture to be a great help as I worked through volume 1. For instance, while I had read about royal and lament and wisdom psalms previously, enthronement psalms were new to me. The general concept, and its conceptual history, fascinated me, and gave me refreshed perspective when looking at Psalm 41 or 99. And there were additional categories in this section to consider, such as the Songs of Zion, which greatly added to how I interact with the Psalms as I read them now.

Of course, saying that a commentary changed one’s perspective is not new, nor is it limited to Biblical studies. But the nature of Ross’s writing is different from the commentary one picks up on Hemingway or on the Iliad. The point of understanding the Psalms better is to approach God’s revelation and purposes with eyes open wide. Here, though the poetic form of each psalm provides challenges, exegesis is so helpful in grappling with texts that can be difficult or even opaque at times.

As Ross nicely summarizes the issue: “the exegetical exposition . . . is the one method that guarantees the entire psalm will be explained, correlated and applied in a clear, interesting, and meaningful way” (179). Ross certainly approaches this goal in his commentary, and his observations and study will benefit any Christian wishing to better understand these worship “essentials”, both of the past and for today (147).

 

 

Coming Down from the Mountain: A Tribute to Ravencrest

“This strength and comfort from the second blaze / came to me, whence I raised my eyes unto / those mountains that had bowed them.” — Dante, Paradise XXV.37-39

I can still remember roaming the cool mountainside, stopping on boulders that jutted out from the ground which formed precarious cliffs. Those ledges beckoned for any who were brave enough to sit on their edge and breathe in the world that lay below them. The soft breeze coupled with the bright sun created a feeling that, here in this place, Spring was more than a season on the calendar; it was alive. Of course, the livelihood of Spring only came after the snows of Winter and the Autumn trees exchanging their Summer clothes for something more sensible. But it was not the weather, nor the outdoor adventuring which brought me to Estes Park, Colorado in September of 2011. I arrived at the top of Pole Hill because I wanted to study the Bible.

Ravencrest Bible School, a small community based out of Ravencrest Chalet, had not been my first choice out of high school. Hunkering down in a school of some eighty-odd strangers, traipsing through the snows in October, and dodging elk in downtown Estes every Wednesday did not sound like a grand time. My primary desire as an eighteen-year-old was not to dive deep into Scripture, at first. When I had submitted the application that February before graduation, I had merely wanted my parents to be satisfied that I had applied somewhere. When my acceptance letter arrived a few weeks later, I had to come to terms with the idea that I would be spending five hours a day, five days a week, for eight months, reading and discussing and wrestling with the Word of God. I warmed up to the idea slowly, and benefitted from a rigorous education which embodied the admonitions of St. John Chrysostom. We learned hymns, read the stories of the Bible, learned to serve one another, and conducted our relationships in the open light of the community (Gamble 195-200).  I was receiving an education that I did not understand, and in spite of myself, God moved in me.

During my time at Ravencrest, the presence of God permeated our classrooms, dorms, and excursions. This inculcated a devotion to truth that, in the moment, seemed as though it would never wane. In this way, Ravencrest was what medieval Irish monks called “a thin place” (Balzer 29). This idea of thinness, where we are “honest with God and listen to the deep murmurings of his Spirit,” perfectly captures the atmosphere at Ravencrest. God’s Word prompted soul searching, discovery, and repentance. When we wounded one another, there was no place to go hide; a community of eighty people does not make for continual avoidance strategies. At every turn, maturation knocked at the door, and beckoned that we might step further along the path of righteousness. We read through the entire Bible in my first year, and I found myself reading the same Pauline letter every day for a month if I wanted to understand it. I learned “to think nothing of wealth or worldly reputation or power or death or the present life on earth” (Gamble 205). Thus, for two years, the painful pilgrimage in Estes Park paid for itself with the building of friendships and the grasping of God’s word.

The return to the world below, the thick reality of living and working and having to make time to study the Bible, was more than I could handle at first. A desire to retreat back to the shelter of the mountains, to take Jesus’ moments where he “would slip away to the wilderness to pray” as a model for my every difficulty (Luke 5:16, NASB). But the follow through, where Jesus would return to the masses and give of Himself, kept me from the hermitage. It took years to learn the balance in a world thick with voices clamoring for my attention; the goal became more than survival in the dark. I went on to become a teacher of God’s Word, implementing the strategies and lessons which had done so much to shape me.

But unlike Dante or even Aeneas’s men whom he invokes, I do not suffer the loss of memory as  “when the wind blew the weightless leaves away” (XXXIII.64-66). The gift of Ravencrest was the hiding of something invaluable, just as the Psalmist “treasured in my heart” the Word of God (Psalm 119:11, NASB). Still, the sight of a mountain peak still stirs my soul, as if Colorado has seeped into my bones. And when the first real chill of Autumn sets in, I pour a hot cup of coffee, crack open the worn spine of my Bible, and remember that time which some days seems to call out from so long ago.

Bibliography

Dante. Paradise. Translated by Anthony Esolen. New York: Modern Library, 2007.

Balzer, Tracy. Thin Places: An Evangelical Journey Into Celtic Christianity. Abilene, TX: Abilene Christian University Press, 2007.

Gamble, Richard M., ed. The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007.