Thursday Review: Tremper Longman on Proverbs

Tremper Longman III, Proverbs, Baker Commentary on the OT Wisdom and Psalms, Baker, 2006.
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Tremper Longman is Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College, USA and a prolific author including commentaries on Ecclesiastes (NICOT, Eerdmans, 1998) and Song of Songs (NICOT, Eerdmans, 2001).

After a translation of the text by the author, the commentary divides into two sections: a section on ‘interpretation’ which looks at the text in its original historical setting and a section on ‘theological implications’ which connects the text with the wider canon. The theological section, however, is only employed for chapters 1-9. Instead we have an appendix in which he looks at various themes: alcohol, anger, appropriate expressions of emotions, appropriate and so on (strangely excluding justice). Each of these lists all the relevant proverbs and then provides an overview of what the book has to say on the topic.

Longman rejects recent complex (fanciful?) constructions of structure in chapters 10 onwards, preferring to see these as ‘relatively randomly organized’ (16). He concludes that the book of Proverbs was compiled over a long period of time, but that we can recognize Solomon’s hand in its composition.

Proverbs, says Longman, ‘do not teach a universally valid truth. On the contrary, proverbs are true only if stated at the right time and in the right circumstance.’ (31) This explains the apparently contradictory proverbs in 26:4-5. They describe what is generally true rather than what is always true. This leads Longman to suggest – and I think this is a very helpful insight – that Ecclesiastes and Job should be read alongside Proverbs ‘as part of a canonical corrective to an over-reading of the book of Proverbs’ (62, 85)

Many themes of Old Testament theology are all but absent in the book of Proverbs (the patriarchs, the monarchy, covenant). But Longman refutes the idea that it contains merely ‘secular advice’. ‘The book is thoroughly and pervasively theological.’ Central to this is the fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom. Longman acknowledges the parallels in Near Eastern traditions. 1 Kings 4:29-30 says Solomon’s wisdom surpassed rather than supplanted the wisdom of other nations. Pagans may stumble on helpful truths and formulate it in creative ways. ‘However, based on 1:7, [the Israelite sages] still would not judge pagan wisdom teachers as truly and authentically wise, because they lack fear of Yahweh. The bottom line is that there is no wisdom apart from a relationship with Yahweh.’ (58) ‘The best way to know how to get on in the world is to become acquainted with the One so intimately involvement in its creation.’ (79)

Longman suggest what he calls ‘Woman Wisdom’ represents not only the wisdom of Yahweh, but Yahweh himself. This is because she resides on the highest point of the city – the location of the temple. Folly, too, lives at the highest point of the city (9:14) which leads Longman to suggest she represents false gods. Chapter 9 ends with a decision: will you dine with Women wisdom or with Woman Folly? ‘I have argued that chapters 1-9 serve as an introduction, even a kind of hermeneutical prism, through which we should read the rest of the book. The first part of the book requires a decision of the young men, who represents the reader. With whom will one dine, with Wisdom or with Folly? This is a call for a religious decision, a decision between the true God and false gods.’ (61) This is so suggestive, but disappointingly rarely gets referred to in the discussion of chapters 10-31 so we do not get to see how this is played out in day to day choices.

The introduction to the commentary is great. I whole-heartedly recommend it. But this beginning then made me somewhat disappointed with the commentary proper because some of the key discussions in the introduction are not reflected in the comments on individual proverbs which is precisely where you want it!

Application
According to the Series Preface (written by Tremper Longman himself since he is the series editor) the series ‘has a definite audience in mind’, defining the primary users as ‘scholars, ministers, seminary students and Bible study leaders’. If this is a definite audience, I have no idea what an vague audience might include or who Longman has in mind as secondary users! To be fair, he clarifies this by saying ‘we have most in mind’ (the primary primary audience?!) ‘clergy and future clergy, namely, seminary students’. And certainly the style is very accessible. This is a great feature of the commentary. The more technical discussions are relegated to footnotes.

But there is not much to help with application. The two sections of the commentary (‘interpretation’ and ‘theological implications’) are somewhat like the first and second sections of the NIV Application Commentaries. But the third section on contemporary application is missing. The ‘theological implications’ section is supposed to make connections with the contemporary world, but these are few and far between. The commentary provides the groundwork in the ancient world and presents this in a non-technical way. But the reader will have to do the work of application.

In this the themes in the appendix are a great help. These are worth the price of the book alone, not only as a way of preaching through Proverbs, but also in their own write as wise teaching on these topics.

This, though, does raise the issue of how Proverbs should be taught or more broadly how one should engage with the book of the Proverbs. I’m a great believer in letting the genre of Scripture shape how we teach it. Nowhere is this more challenging than with the book of Proverbs. The Proverbs collected in chapters 10 onwards are simply not designed for three-point, 30-minute sermons. They seem far more suited to a ‘proverbs of the day’ approach – a thought to ponder through the day. So let me make a suggestion. Take a proverb, read Longman’s comments on it, write it out on a piece of paper and shove it your pocket. Then meditate on at odd moments during the day. Or even better, memorize it ready to share it at apposite moments.

Christology
Longman suggests some may find his christological reading controversial (16). But my main complaint is not that he employs a christological reading, but that he is does not! He strongly argues in the introduction that we should see the book of Proverbs fulfilled in Christ, seeing Christ as the epitome of wisdom. The problem is that Christ is all but absent in the rest of the commentary. The only exceptions are his comments on Proverbs 8 which he persuasively argues is fulfilled in Christ (though here he simply repeats a section of material from the introduction) and the occasional observation that a Proverb may have lain behind a saying of Jesus.

Longman says Jesus fulfils Proverbs because he is the epitome of wisdom. True. But there is more to it than that. There is a redemptive quality to Jesus the Wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1). Proverbs provide wisdom because they show consequences and contrasts in an ordered world. They work because God created a world with a created order and a moral order. But the world is now also a messed up world. That is why Proverbs do not always work. That is why, as Longman puts it, we need to beware an ‘over-reading’ of Proverbs. But Jesus is our Wisdom because he is the one who makes wisdom work again by restoring the created and moral order of the universe. (For more on this, see my article on reading Proverbs at beginningwithmoses.org.)

I think an engagement with the heart-centred focus of biblical counselling found in the writings of the faculty of CCEF would have greatly enriched both the redemptive dimension and the practical application.

Conclusion
This is a helpful, thorough and accessible look at the meaning of Proverbs in its historical context. But you will have to work out how to read proverbs christologically and apply them today.

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2 thoughts on “Thursday Review: Tremper Longman on Proverbs

  1. Hi Tim,

    thanks for the lenghty review. I was just wondering which commentaries you could recommend on the book of Proverbs which is sound in doctrine, christological in it’s focus (hermeneutic) and more extensive than e.g. Kidner or Goldsworthy?

  2. Concerning my former post: I didn’t intend to offend you as I mentioned your “lenghty” review. I wanted to say thank you for your “detailed” review, not that it was too long. English is not my mother tongue.

    I am still interested to learn more about good commentaries on the book of Proverbs. Any suggenstions maybe from other readers?

    In Christ
    Thorsten

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