A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Russell D. Taylor Jr.
Ryan P. O’Dowd’s commentary on the book of Proverbs in the Story of God Bible Commentary series is a welcome addition to my bookshelf that is easy to read, well-researched, and broadly insightful. I expect to find myself reaching for it again whenever I am preaching or teaching from the book of Proverbs.
The preface begins with an important reminder that “no single commentary can exhaust the meaning of a biblical book. The Bible is unfathomably rich” (p. 12). The series claims to be unique in its emphasis on “trajectories (historical, typological, and theological) that land in Christ in the New Testament” (p. 13). That focus proves especially rare in commentaries on the Wisdom Literature, which is often viewed as standing apart from the redemptive history of the Bible.
Nevertheless, O’Dowd’s volume fulfills the series editors’ aim quite well. One of its primary strengths—from the perspective of a preacher who is always in search of ways that the biblical texts relate to one another—is its thorough identification of parallels between Proverbs and other biblical books. Parallel texts are listed prominently at the beginning of each chapter and then discussed at some length. O’Dowd wrestles to some extent with the question of intertextual dependence, for example between Proverbs 1–9; 28; 30 and Deuteronomy (pp. 40–42; 51; 373–374; 399). But whatever the historical relationship between the texts, they stand together within the canon and many beneficial insights may be gained by reading them in view of one another.
While this volume is written for non-scholars (“particularly clergy, but also laypeople”, p. 12), it is solidly grounded in recent biblical scholarship. O’Dowd frequently interacts with the standard commentaries on Proverbs and other scholarly literature. But he is careful not to allow his writing to be bogged down by debates over minor issues. Rather, he cites only the conclusions that he deems best while providing many of his own unique insights and perspectives.
The introductory material is especially well done. It provides satisfying answers to some of the more pressing questions surrounding the book of Proverbs, such as the nature of biblical wisdom and reasons why the individual proverbs are arranged in the way they are. I would tend to attribute to the historical Solomon a greater role in composing and compiling portions of the book than O’Dowd does, but his discussion is nevertheless challenging and helpful.
The commentary itself is divided into thirty-six chapters. Three chapters each are devoted to Proverbs 1 and 3, one chapter provides an overview of Proverbs 10–29, and the remaining chapters follow the biblical chapter divisions. No chapter break is placed at 22:17, the beginning of the “sayings of the wise,” even though O’Dowd notes a major break at that point in his overview of chapters 10–29.
Each of the commentary’s chapters is divided into three parts which correspond to the basic observation–interpretation–application hermeneutical method:
“Listen to the Story”: Here the text of the New International Version 2011 is presented uninterrupted, followed by some discussion of earlier biblical texts and ancient near eastern background. O’Dowd often cites parallels with non-Israelite wisdom literature and argues that they “show the universal concerns of wisdom in the ancient world” (p. 236) but that “the likelihood that Proverbs influenced other ancient writings, or vice versa, is simply impossible to discern with the evidence we have” (p. 193).
“Explain the Story”: This portion of each chapter is primarily exegetical and divides the text into smaller units before discussing its meaning for ancient readers. The NIV text appears again before each of the smaller units in Proverbs 10–29. O’Dowd gives more attention to exegesis in Proverbs 10–29 where he aims at “unpacking the complexity of individual sayings”, and devotes more attention to application in Proverbs 1–9 and 30–31 (cf. p. 46). At a few points, I found myself wishing for more. For example, his comments on 23:29–35 or the powerful acrostic poem in 31:10–31 struck me as rather cursory. Overall, however, O’Dowd’s exegesis is fresh and insightful.
“Live the Story”: Here the commentary aims to read the text through the lens of Christ and the New Testament, and then to discuss the text’s relevance to current issues and concerns. This is where O’Dowd’s breadth of eclectic knowledges shines. He often provides surprisingly relevant references to sources as diverse as a 2013 New York Times article about auto sales on Black Friday (p. 133), Antione de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince (p. 45), Jean Vanier’s l’Arche communities for people with severe mental and physical disabilities (p. 233), Athanasius’s defense of the Trinity against Arianism (p. 158), and Lakoff and Nuñez’s “Where Mathematics Come From” (p. 333). The insights and wisdom found in these sections is undoubtedly another of this volume’s strengths.
Aside from a chart at the end of the introduction summarizing the “Live the Story” subheadings for each chapter, the commentary makes no attempt to synthesize the individual proverbs into topical categories. The proverbs in chapters 10–29 are discussed in canonical order, which is certainly appropriate, but some readers in the target audience might be looking for a more systematic approach to Proverbs, which they will not find here. The Subject Index might have been used quite effectively in this regard, but rather than expected subjects like “money,” “alcohol,” or “friendship,” one finds entries like “Leningrad Codex,” “pluralism,” and “Aristotle.”
This will probably not be the last commentary on Proverbs that I will ever use—nor was it designed to be an end-all treatment of the book—and I cannot say I agree with every interpretation and conclusion. However, I found myself learning something new in every chapter—and not only new facts and details, but insights that have been and will continue to be useful to me in my work as a preacher. Therefore, I certainly recommend giving this commentary a read. Anyone who does so will grow in their knowledge of the book of Proverbs and in their ability to apply biblical wisdom to contemporary life.
Russell D. Taylor Jr. (M.A. in Old Testament and Semitic Languages, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) preaches full-time for the Bridgeview Church of Christ in Bridgeview, IL.
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Proverbs (The Story of God Bible Commentary)