A Good Book

Review by Dr Philip Satterthwaite

Providence, I believe, has put this week’s Good Book my way. My wife Eileen, who teaches at Discipleship Training College, happened to be preparing to give a lecture on the Song of Songs, and drew to my attention Five Festal Garments. Christian Reflections on the Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther, by Barry Webb (Leicester: IVP, 2000). As the publication date indicates, the book has been around for a few years, and indeed I had noted it in an absent-minded sort of way when it first came out, but seeing my wife reading it brought it to mind again, and I found it of great interest.

 

Now, I’m writing a book which includes chapters on Ruth and Esther, I’m due to lecture on all five books in different courses later this semester, and I’m also due to engage in church teaching on Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs in the second part of the year. That would make this book somewhat relevant to me, wouldn’t it? But if you read it, I’ll think you’ll find it rewarding too. The five books covered include some of the more neglected and/or puzzling parts of the OT, and Webb provides a brief, helpful treatment of each of them.

 

The term ‘five festal garments’ is taken from Genesis 45:22, and refers also to the traditional reading of these books at five major festivals in the Jewish year: Passover (Song of Songs), the Feast of Weeks (Ruth), the Ninth of Ab (the commemoration of the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 586 BC; Lamentations), Tabernacles (Ecclesiastes) and Purim (Esther). Webb does base some of his interpretation of these five books on their later use within Judaism, because consideration of traditional usage is relevant to the question of interpretation. But first and foremost, what Webb offers are ‘Christian reflections’, reflections which stem from Webb’s own Christian commitment and from his desire to understand these books as part of Christian Scripture.

 

Webb follows a threefold approach to each book. He first of all aims to understand each book on its own terms, trying to make sense of it as it stands and only referring to other parts of the Bible when the book itself seems to demand it. This is a crucial step in Bible interpretation: listening to the text, not immediately harmonizing its teaching with that of other, more familiar parts of the Bible, but hearing the distinctive thing that God is saying through this part of his Word. Part of the reason for the comparative neglect of some of these books is that Christians are not sure whether their message fits with other parts of Scripture: but the correct response to Bible texts that seem to puzzle or repel us is to pay them closer attention, not to ignore them or to neutralize their message. Webb, accordingly, spends the bulk of each of his five chapters addressing the question: what is the text saying? These sections of his treatment are excellent, not full-scale surveys, but skilful treatments of key interpretative issues in each book.

 

The remaining sections of each chapter attempt to relate each book, firstly, to the rest of the OT (Does this book seem to share common themes and ideas with other parts of the OT? Does it stand in tension with other parts of the OT?); and, secondly, to the NT (How does the NT take up and develop themes found in this book?) This is also a necessary step: we must hear the distinctive witness of each part of Scripture; but, if we believe that Scripture ultimately forms a single revelation from God, we must also ask how the parts fit together. Here again, Webb’s approach is suggestive and helpful. I cannot go through his treatment of each of the five books, so let me summarize some points from his treatment of Ecclesiastes as a sample.

 

Webb’s survey of Ecclesiastes notes how it can be a frustrating book to study, because it seems so unstructured and contradictory. He explores the structure of the book, examines key terms (‘under the sun’, ‘toil’ and, above all hevel[traditionally translated ‘vanity’]), and sets out leading themes of the book (human frailty, the brevity of life, the limits of human knowledge). He notes that Ecclesiastes’ thought is unresolved at times: how can the author be confident that ‘God will judge the righteous and the wicked’ (3:17) when he also states that both righteous and wicked seem to share the same fate (9:2). Webb then goes on to consider how the book shares ideas with Genesis 1-11, with Proverbs and, via its link with the Feast of Tabernacles, with Deuteronomy 16 and 23 (an odd book to read at a joyful festival, you might have thought). He then goes into the NT, and notes how Ecclesiastes’ insistence on the futility of much human endeavour is acknowledged in the NT, but also answered in passages which speak of the redemption of creation from futility through Christ (Rom. 8:18-25) and of our labour ‘in the Lord’ which is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). And the NT teaching on resurrection and judgment after death resolves Ecclesiastes’ apparent contradiction on the question of God’s justice. Ecclesiastes, Webb insists, has not been set aside by the NT: on the contrary, the book’s brutal insistence on being realistic about the world and about what we can hope to achieve in it will remain relevant so long as the world remains as it is.

The other chapters are as good. I commend this book of genuinely Christian, genuinely biblical reflections to all BGST readers.

 

CHAPEL NOTES

 

 

Chapel on Feb 2nd was taken by Dr Quek Swee Hwa. Taking as his text, Psalm 16, he focussed on the Christian experience of the fullness of joy (v.11). This Golden Psalm (Michtam) of David speaks of the preciousness of God. To a person who faces grave danger and adversities in life, the message of vv.5 & 11 is important: God guides each one of us in the path of life. We may have to go through vicissitudes, but take heart, God is not far away and what is in store for us is both eternal pleasures in heaven as well as unspeakable joy in the here and now.

 

Chapel Speaker on Feb 23rd will be Dr Aquila Lee.

 

NEWS BITS

 

Students taking Old Testament Foundations II (OT102), kindly take note of the schedule for subsequent sessions: Feb 17, 24, Mar 3, 10, 17, 31, Apr 7, 14, 21, 28, May 5, 12, 19, 26; Time: 7.30-10pm.

Courses commencing in Term 2.

  • Ruth and Esther (OT354, 1.5 credits), starting Mar 21. Lecturer: Dr Philip Satterthwaite.

  • Learning the Craft of Teaching (CE255, 1.5 credits), starting Mar 22. Lecturer: Dr Ng Peh Cheng.

  • Counselling Skills: Dealing with Pre-marital Counselling (CO233, 1.5 credits), starting Apr 27. Lecturer: Mr Song Cheng Hock.

  • The Parables of Jesus (NT216, 1.5 credits), starting Apr 1. Lecturer: Dr Aquila Lee.

  • Theology of Work (Tent module), starting May 3 at DTC, 33A Chancery Lane. Lecturer: Rev John Ting.

  • Vocation, Work and Ministry (MM101, 3 credits, video class), starting May 6. Lecturer: Prof. Paul Stevens. This is a required course for MCS & MDiv students.

 

 

 

A Blessed Birthday to…

Mr Christine Tey 21/2

Mr Leow Theng Huat 21/2

Mr Lim Ching Hock 22/2

Mr Simon Wong 22/2

Mr Ivan Liew 23/2

Mr Edwin Chak 24/2

Mrs Jessie Tan 27/2

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