A Book Review from Books At a Glance
Reviewed by William C. Pohl IV
Richard P. Belcher, Professor of Old Testament and Academic Dean at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, continues his work in the wisdom literature with this forty-sixth volume of the New Studies in Biblical Theology Series. Having recently published important volumes such as Job: The Mystery of Suffering and God’s Sovereignty and Ecclesiastes: A Mentor Commentary, Belcher seeks to unpack the rich and valuable theological contribution of the traditional wisdom books of the OT, Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. The New Studies in Biblical Theology series focuses on one or more of the following areas: (1) the discipline of biblical theology, (2) articulating the theology of a particular biblical writer or corpus, and/or (3) a delineation of a biblical theme across the canon. Belcher’s work provides an estimable contribution to this series by focusing on the theology of the biblical wisdom literature.
Summary of Contents
Belcher opens his monograph with an historical discussion on the role wisdom literature has played in OT theology. He reviews the scholarship of major thinkers from the last fifty years. Belcher shows how the wisdom literature (Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes) has often been cast aside by OT theologians because of the assumption that OT wisdom was naturalistic and humanistic. He argues that the assumptions undergirding much of this scholarship are problematic, and seeks to demonstrate the unity between wisdom and the rest of the OT (11–14).
Following this historical survey, Belcher turns his attention to Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. He treats each book with three chapters. He begins his discussion of Proverbs in chapter two by highlighting the hermeneutical guidance provided by Proverbs 1–9 for the rest of the book. He highlights how wisdom helps the simpleton to avoid obstacles in life and to receive benefits of wisdom. He has a lengthy discussion on the personification of wisdom, connecting Lady Wisdom and the voice of Yahweh. He shows how the reader is left with a choice at the end of Proverbs 9: will you dine with Lady Wisdom or Lady Folly? He concludes his treatment of Proverbs 1–9 by teasing out Christological implications of Lady Wisdom. In chapter three, Belcher provides an overview of how to read and apply proverbs, and in chapter four, he outlines the theology of Proverbs. He highlights three major themes in the book: the sovereignty of God, creation order (in which he discusses common grace, order/disorder in creation, and general and special revelation to non-Israelites), and life (both present life and eternal life). His discussion of the difficulties within Proverbs 30 in his theological discussion of revelation to non-Israelites is particularly insightful.
After treating Proverbs, Belcher begins his three-chapter journey through the book of Job. He divides the book into three sections, focusing a chapter each on Job 1–3, Job 4–26, and Job 27–42. In chapter five, Belcher addresses important hermeneutical issues in the book of Job, showing the importance of the prologue (Job 1–2) for the interpretation of the whole book. He considers the book of Job one that provides wisdom regarding how to respond to the problem of suffering. He also treats the difficult curse-lament of Job 3, highlighting its lament in a pastorally sensitive way. Belcher then turns to the wisdom debate of Job 4–26 in chapter six. This chapter is organized by outlining the arguments and theology of each of the friends (Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar), followed by an outline of the arguments and theology of Job. To conclude his discussion of the book of Job, Belcher looks at Job 27–42 in chapter seven. He shows the deterioration of the dialogue between Job and his friends, and then offers a summary of Job’s final words (Job 27–31—he takes Job 28 to be a continuation of Job’s speech from chapter 27), Elihu’s speeches (Job 32–37), and Yahweh’s speeches (Job 38–42). After a brief discussion of the epilogue (Job 42:7–17), Belcher unpacks the theology of the book, highlighting three themes: suffering, the sovereignty of God, and divine retribution. He concludes his discussion of the book of Job with some brief musings connecting Job and Jesus.
Belcher treats the book of Ecclesiastes last. In chapter eight, Belcher provides an illuminating treatment on how to read the book, discussing the narrative frame and how to view Qohelet. In his ninth chapter, Belcher outlines the teaching of Qohelet. There are three major categories under which he summarizes Qohelet’s teaching: the search for meaning under the sun, the limitations of human knowledge, and the uncertainty of the future. This robust discussion of Qohelet’s teaching allows Belcher to summarize Qohelet’s theology in chapter ten, noting his view of God’s works, his view of God himself, and his view of the world. Qohelet’s teaching and theology is juxtaposed against the theology of the book itself. Here, Belcher notes that Qohelet is used as a warning against speculative wisdom apart from the fear of Yahweh. In these concluding sections of chapter ten, Belcher provides rich discussion regarding how to connect the book to NT theology and how to preach the book.
In his final chapter, chapter eleven, Belcher considers the connection between Jesus and wisdom. He outlines the wisdom of Jesus’ teaching, the wisdom of the person of Christ, and the wisdom of the work of Christ. His discussion of Jesus’ teaching and connections between the Sermon on the Mount and Proverbs is particularly stimulating.
One of the significant strengths of this book is the insightful discussion of theological themes of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. His attention to the wisdom regarding how to respond to suffering as a major theme in Job is both trenchant and timely. Our faith communities need to appropriate more from this difficult book of Job. I also found Belcher’s discussion of Ecclesiastes to be particularly penetrating. Building on the seminal work of Michael Fox, Craig Bartholomew, and Tremper Longman, Belcher’s reading of the book as a frame narrative and critical assessment of Qohelet will prove to be helpful for preachers and teachers trying to figure out ways to make the book’s truths accessible. In my judgment, Belcher’s work on Ecclesiastes is the strongest part of an already strong contribution.
Another strength of this book is Belcher’s ability to do biblical theology, offering stimulating musings on the connections between wisdom and Christology. Belcher’s work connecting OT wisdom to the teaching of Christ teases out important details that will help ministry practitioners preach the wisdom books. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point. First, he does well to connect Jesus’ teaching about seeking and entering the kingdom of God as of paramount importance with the book of Proverb’s emphasis on the primal priority of obtaining wisdom: “Entering the kingdom must be a person’s highest priority. This parallels the emphasis in Proverbs of seeking wisdom and getting wisdom at all costs, except now it is seeking Jesus and following him at all costs. Jesus’ teaching does not stand against the wisdom in Proverbs, but highlights aspects of response because of the radical nature of the kingdom” (201). Second, Belcher highlights how one might preach or teach the book of Ecclesiastes, noting the “benefit is that Qohelet deconstructs many activities in which people find security” with his under-the-sun worldview. Belcher recommends juxtaposing Qohelet’s approach with the NT “above-the-sun” teaching, helping people rightly situate the pursuit of pleasure, the nature of work, and the certainty of the future in light of Christ (182–83). Belcher’s ideas prove stimulating, sure to generate new ideas and applications for ministry practitioners.
There are a couple of weaknesses that are worth addressing as well, with the first being more significant than the second. The first weakness is the apparently glaring omission regarding the fear of Yahweh in the book of Proverbs’ theology. To be sure, there are a couple of places where he defines and discusses the fear of Yahweh (e.g., p. 21), but he nowhere has a sustained treatment of it. Yet, it seems particularly important as a key theological contribution of the book of Proverbs as it is “the religious foundation of life” (45). Given Belcher’s astuteness throughout the work, it would benefit readers to have a section in chapter four dedicated to outlining what the fear of Yahweh is and applying it to our context. The second, and much less significant, weakness is that, while there are benefits to summarizing the arguments and theology of each of the characters in the book of Job, Belcher’s approach in chapter six may result in the reader missing the connections between the speeches of Job and his friends. This is undoubtedly a minor criticism, given that a speech-by-speech analysis may cloud the clarity of the theology from each character.
Belcher’s work is an insightful read. I would highly recommend it for pastors considering preaching the wisdom books as well as for an excellent introduction to wisdom for students who are beginning their exploration of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. For the former, they’ll find his approach and summary of the theological contribution of each book accessible and useful for preaching and teaching preparation. For the latter, students will obtain a review of the recent history regarding the role of wisdom literature in OT theology, keen hermeneutical and theological insights on each book, and a rich resource of bibliography for further reading and consideration. This is a welcome volume
William Pohl is a member of the Christian Studies faculty at Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy in Cincinnati, OH. He earned his PhD in OT from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.
Buy the books
Finding Favour in the Sight of God: A Theology of Wisdom Literature