Younger: Judges and Ruth

judges_ruth_review_20210914
K. Lawson Younger, Jr. 2002. The NIV Application Commentary: Judges/Ruth. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Commentaries are important to our faith.  Commentaries provide the lens through which we understand scripture either through personal study or the preaching that they are exposed to.  When I am not teaching, I read commentaries devotionally.

The author of the Book of Judges famously writes: In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes (Judges 17:6 ESV). Sound familiar?  Not coincidentally, the postmodern period is also characterized by this same characteristic—an extreme focus on equality. Other focuses are possible.  Tension between different groups in society over the rights of individuals and the rights of the community highlight, in part, change in the values held most dearly [1]. The focus on individual initiative in the Book of Judges speaks to the moral challenge of our own time [2]. By contrast, the Book of Ruth paints a picture of faithfulness and God’s providence in the midst of otherwise chaotic and desperate lives.

Younger describes the purpose of the Book of Judges as:  the consequences of disobedience to God with the resultant moral degeneration that characterized the history of this period (23). A judge was more of a tribal leader rather than a government official in charge of deciding legal matters as we might think of a judge (22). Leadership was less formal, more charismatic. The book ends on the period of the judges were the death of Joshua and the coronation of King Saul—a period of no more than 400 years (24). Ruth, being the great grandmother of King David (Ruth 4:17), also lived during this period.

The structure of the Book of Judges aids in observing the moral degeneration of both the judges and the people. Younger notes the following cycle being repeated throughout the accounts:

1. Israel does evil in the eyes of Yahweh;
2. Yahweh gives/sells them into the hands of oppressors;
3. Israel serves the oppressor for X years;
4. Israel cries out to Yahweh;
5. Yahweh raises up a deliverer (i.e. judge);
6. The spirit of Yahweh is upon the deliverer;
7. The oppressor is subdues;
8. The land has “rest” for X years (35).

In reviewing the particular judges, Younger notes that over time the judges were increasingly ignorant of God and his covenant, and increasingly prone to idolatry. The two most famous judges, Samson and Gideon, therefore exemplify this trend showing serious personal flaws.  The book speaks not of their suitability as role models, but of God’s forbearance and love.

Perhaps of most interest to a contemporary audience are the roles of Deborah and Jael, both women. In a male dominated society, both women assume roles normally reserved for men, in part, to highlight the degeneration of the men, in this case, Barak and Sisera (138-146). Younger makes the point that rather than setting Deborah and Jael up as role models, the author of Judges uses them as a foil to highlight the degeneration of the men. Elevation of the women does fill the gap created by responsibility-avoiding men, but it is not the author’s focus.

Much more could be said about the Book of Judges—especially in view of contrary opinions. However, in a short review it is more interesting to turn to the Book of Ruth.  Ruth is a stark contrast to the Book of Judges.

The key verse in the Book of Ruth highlights the transformative power of faith:

But Ruth said, Do not urge me to leave you or to return from following you. For where you go I will go, and where you lodge I will lodge. Your people shall be my people, and your God my God. (Ruth 1:16 ESV)

Through faith and fidelity to God’s law even an immigrant woman from Moab living in Israel finds protection under God’s providential care.  God later acts through her faithfulness to bring about both the Kingship of David and the redemption of Jesus himself. The Book of Ruth accordingly displays the faithful remnant in Israel that transforms the nation itself during a general period of decline and degeneracy.

The themes outlined in the Younger study deserve more attention. The usual treatment of the judges and of the characters in Ruth as heroes of the faith fails to capture the subtly of the actual stories. Younger paints a more realistic picture—one that informs our own times.

[1] Most professionals, for example, are trained to value objectivity most dearly—the dominant value held in the modern period. In the feudal period loyalty was the highest value. At any given point, the priority placed on these values may differ among social groups.

[2] The NIV Application Commentary has been my default commentary over the past decade because the series takes the narrative of scripture seriously. Once I am acquainted with an orthodox interpretation, I can judge a book from other dimensions. I have taught from the series the Books of Romans, Luke, Genesis, Revelations, John, Matthew, Galatians, and 1 & 2 Corinthians (I may have forgotten some books). The series takes seriously John Stott’s division of the homiletical task into 3 things: the author’s context (original meaning), the reader’s context (contemporary significance), and the need to bridge the two (bridging contexts).

References

John Stott. 1982. Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Younger: Judges and Ruth

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McKnight: 1 Peter Explained

McKnight_commentary_reviewed_08092014Scott McKnight. 1996. The NIV Application Commentary: 1 Peter. Grand Rapids: Zondervan.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

The NIV Application Commentary has been my default commentary over the past several years because the series takes the narrative of scripture seriously. Once I am acquainted with an orthodox interpretation, I can judge a book from other dimensions. I have taught from the series the Books of Romans, Luke, Genesis, Revelations, John, Matthew, Galatians, and 1 Corinthians (I may have forgotten some books). The series takes seriously John Stott’s division of the homiletical task into 3 things: the author’s context (original meaning), the reader’s context (contemporary significance), and the need to bridge the two (bridging contexts) [1].  This background in the series led me to consider Scott McKnight’s commentary on 1 Peter.

McKnight sets out the goal of “to study 1 Peter in such a way as to highlight Peter’s proposals for Christian life in a modern society” (22). In his overview, he breaks Peter’s message into three points: salvation, the church, and Christian life. Peter describes salvation through Christ’s suffering (1 Peter 2:24). The church is pictured as the family of God. In the Christian life, Peter exhorts his readers to practice hope, holiness, fear before God, love, and growth (32). What caught my eye was McKnight’s observation that 1 Peter is the most popular NT book among Christians living with social marginalization and suffering outside the Western context (35). That would include many Hispanic and Middle Eastern people that I know.

Suffering. It is my own observation that the suffering in my own life–a wife with cancer, a child on dialysis, and a younger sister who died suddenly–has enabled me to witness more effectively to those around me. In like manner, we are drawn to the cross of Christ. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). McKnight’s rendering of 1 Peter and his focus on the role of suffering convinced me that I need to spend more time with this book.

McKnight spends a fair amount of time trying to unpack the social position of Peter’s audience. He views 1 Peter 2:11-12 as a pivotal passage. Are his readers “aliens and strangers”? Is the pursuit of holiness especially important because of their low social standing? If they were literally aliens and strangers—the illegal immigrants of their day—how do we, who are not, read this book? Interesting questions.  In the new, downwardly-mobile, post-Christian context in which most Americans live today, 1 Peter becomes more relevant with each passing day.

Among the NIV commentaries in this series, the McKnight commentary on 1 Peter is a gem. He struggles with interesting questions. His reading of 1 Peter is both balanced and insightful. After reading about Peter’s response to suffering, McKnight convinced me to look also at Paul’s treatment of suffering in 2 Corinthians—a study that I have taken up this summer.

Footnotes

[1] See:  John Stott. 1982.  Between Two Worlds:  The Challenge of Preaching Today.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.

McKnight: 1 Peter Explained

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Nouwen: Make Space for Self, Others, and God 

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Keller Explains Galatians

Keller_review_20200629

Timothy Keller. 2013. Galatians for You. USA: The Goodbook Company.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Commentaries are books about books and they come in handy when we read a culturally distant book like the Bible.  Biblical culture has at least three attributes that line up poorly with American culture.  The Bible is highly relational, reflective, and laconic (carefully chosen words) while American culture is transactional, superficial, and wordy—we are inundated daily with verbal and visual messages.  Consequently, one of the most difficult challenges in leading an adult Bible study today is finding a commentary that is both accessible and informative.  Timothy Keller’s, Galatians for You, meets both criteria.

Background

Keller is the founding pastor (church planter) of Redeemer Presbyterian Church (www.redeemer.com) in New York City which is famous for successfully evangelizing young professionals. He received his masters of divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (GCTS) and doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary.  He has written a number of books, including: The Reason for God (New York: Dutton, 2008) and The Meaning of Marriage (with Kathy Keller; New York: Dutton, 2011).  When GCTS set out a box full of Galatians for You in the library at for free distribution last spring, I snapped up a copy.

Series Description

Galatians for You is the first in a series of “for You” study guides. Why start a series with the Apostle Paul’s Letter to the Galatians?  In an online video introduction (http://bit.ly/19XgT4B), Keller gives three reasons:  1. it provides a good summary of the Gospel, 2. it explains the uniqueness of salvation by grace and how it differs from the law, and 3. it helps explain how the Gospel transforms us through grace and fosters the fruits of the spirit.

Organization

Galatians for You is organized in 13 chapters.  In the book, 2 to 3 chapters are devoted to each of the 6 chapters in Galatians. These chapters each divide into two parts focusing on:  1. explaining the Biblical text and 2. applying the issues raised.  Both parts have study questions. A brief introduction precedes and a glossary, appendix, and bibliography follow these chapters.  The introduction summaries the theological issues presented in the letter and provides historical context.  The glossary defines technical terms appearing the text.  The appendix provides a brief explanation of the new perspective on Paul raging in theological circles.

Keller’s art begins with simple communication.  In his introduction, for example, he uses simple words to describe:  the gospel [as] the A to Z of the Christian life (9).  And his personal touch stands out as he identifies with Paul as a fellow: church-planting missionary (10).   Keller writes using lists and bullet points and shares both both information and emotion.  For example, his historical review consists of just three bullet points and his introduction observes Paul is both surprised and angry (13).  These characteristics identify him as a post modern writer and make his writing read like a blog.

Writer’s Craft

Keller’s craft runs through the entire commentary.  For example, salvation by grace differs from (presumed) salvation by law because grace depends on a promise while law depends on performance (78).  He writes:  For a promise to bring a result, it needs only to be believed, but for a law to bring a result, it has to be obeyed (11).  He classifies Christians (Paul’s audience) falling into four categories depending on whether they obey the law and/or rely on the law (versus grace) for their salvation.  These categories emerge: 1. law-obeying, law-relying (modern Pharisees), 2. Law-disobeying (libertines), law-relying (cultural Christians), 3. Law-disobeying, not law-relying (secular or relativistic), and 4. Law-obeying, not law-relying.  Keller observes that most Christians struggle to live out group 4 (obey the law out of gratitude), but often slip into one of the other three categories (117-118).  Keller’s willingness to struggle with these issues gives his writing depth. En un español se diría que es profundo.

Assessment

Keller’s Galatians for You is a joy to read.  Many commentaries and study guides written for a lay audience fail to engage the text and completely ignore the struggles that a post-modern audience faces.  Keller is strong on both points.  I look forward to teaching this text.

Keller Explains Galatians

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Lotz: A Poetic Commentary on John’s Gospel

Anne Graham Lotz, Just Give Me JesusAnne Graham Lotz. 2000. Just Give Me Jesus. Nashville: Word Publishing.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Some stories bear repeating. One story that I have repeated over the years concerned a dinner party where Ruth Graham learned that an older gentleman sitting next to her was the former head of Scotland Yard, the British equivalent of the FBI. Because part of his responsibilities included dealing with counterfeit money, she remarked that he must have spent a lot of time examining counterfeit bills.

“On the contrary, Mrs. Graham, I spent all of my time studying the genuine thing. That way, when I saw a counterfeit, I would immediately detect it.” (3)

The punch line here is that the best apologetic for the Gospel is Jesus himself.  After repeating this story over and over, I felt guilty and decided to buy the book where it appears, Anne Graham Lotz’  Just Give Me Jesus.

Anne Graham Lotz

Anne Graham Lotz is an author, evangelist, and the founder of AnGel Ministries in Raleigh, North Carolina. She is also the daughter of Ruth and Billy Graham. According to her website, “The New York Times named Anne one of the five most influential evangelists of her generation.”[1]

Interestingly, in spite of her obvious talents and family notoriety, Ms Lotz writes with reference to 1 Timothy 2:11-12:[2]

“I believe He [God] has forbidden me to teach or preach from a position of authority over a man…So when I speak, I speak as a woman who is not in authority. Instead, I am a woman who is under authority.” (311)

The term, “under authority”, is a quote from the faithful Centurion, whose slave Jesus healed.[3] This same humility led the Apostle Paul to describe himself numerous times (like Moses[4]) as a slave (δοῦλος) of Christ (e.g. Romans 1:1).[5] Placing herself under authority of Christ means that Ms. Lotz has clearly read her Bible and is above other things an evangelist. Why do I say this? Because her first priority is the Gospel, which she wants to be heard by both women and men. If she ignored or abrogated 1 Tim 2:11-12, as many do today, some men could not hear her words, distracting them from her evangelism.

Commentary on John’s Gospel

In reading Lotz’ book, Just Give Me Jesus, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that it is a commentary on the Gospel of John. Lotz’ poetic style steps aside many of the scholarly interests of academic commentators, but she does not tell us directly why she chose John’s Gospel. Instead, she writes:

“While John’s motivation for writing his eyewitness account of the life of Jesus was his overwhelming, passionate love for Christ, his purpose in writing was his love for you.  The desire of his heart was, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (ix)

If one takes on the mind of Christ as an evangelist, then one must take the words of Jesus seriously when he says: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt 5:6 ESV) and the salvation of sinners. John’s passion is contagious.

Poetic Style

Lotz’ own poetic style is striking and pervasively utilized throughout the book. For example, in discussing the Jesus’ conversation with the paralytic in John 5:6, she turns to the reader and asks:

“Do you want to get well? Do you truly want that sin to be cleansed?

                                                             that guilt to be removed?

                                                      that habit to be broken?

                                         that anger to be dissolved?

                                that bitterness to be uprooted?

                     that emptiness to be filled?

            that joy to be reconciled?

     that relationship to be restored?

that strength to pick up your responsibilities and start walking by faith? (122)

While some might take Lotz’ poetry to be simply a stylistic device, it serves an important hermeneutical purpose. Lotz’ poetic style serves her well in both offering a “biblical theological” exegesis and “speaking to everyone in the room.” Following Calvin, biblical theology strives to exegete (a scholarly term meaning to explain) a biblical passage taking into account the entire counsel of scripture, starting with the author’s intent.  Scripture should explain Scripture; if the author’s intent is unclear, then perhaps another passage of the Bible is clearer. By contrast, “speaking to everyone in the room” is a popular preaching style that strives to understand the perspective of different classes of people or, hermeneutically, how different readers might interpret a particular scripture passage. Lotz’ poetic style allows her a sophisticated exegesis that permits her to explore the three most important hermeneutical perspectives:  author’s intent, the canon of scripture, and the reader.

Assessment

A lot more could be said about Lotz’ poetry. It is neither a mere style nor a strictly feminine approach. If one slows down and examines it carefully, it communicates a clear, deep, and diverse perspective. The potential for Lotz to live up to the New York Times claim (cited above) about her influence is clearly present.

In general, the voluminous nature of a commentary makes it hard to review adequately. Let me just say that Anne Graham Lotz’ Just Give Me Jesus is a delightful book to read and ponder. Already this week as I finished the book I have found myself repeating other stories (in addition to the Ruth Graham story above) that she has told. I suspect that you will too.

[1] http://www.annegrahamlotz.org.

[2] “Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” (1 Tim 2:11-12 ESV)

[3] “But the centurion replied, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.”  When Jesus heard this, he marveled and said to those who followed him, “Truly, I tell you, with no one in Israel have I found such faith.” (Matt 8:8-10 ESV)

[4]יְהוָ֑ה עֶ֣בֶד (Jos 1:1 WTT). The Hebrew reads: slave of God (YHWH).

[5] In case anyone wonders why I take notice, my own business card reads: Slave of Christ, Husband, Father, Tentmaker, Author, Speaker.

Lotz: A Poetic Commentary on John’s Gospel

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