20 April 2007

Book review: Proverbs, by Tremper Longman III

by Dan Phillips

Proverbs, by Tremper Longman III (Baker: 2006; 608 pages)

Longman's commentary on Proverbs is the third volume published in the new Baker Commentary on the Old Testament Wisdom and Psalms series. The series preface (pp. 11-13) identifies the "primary users" as "scholars, ministers, seminary students, and Bible study leaders," with emphasis on "clergy and future clergy, namely, seminary students" (p. 12). Toward this end, the volumes will focus on the books' message. Authors do their own translation, provide explanatory notes, with both interpretive and theological sections.

So how do I give you a feel for a long book, in a relatively short review? Let's check out the features.

First: a very useful introduction to Proverbs (pp. 21-87). This section is very helpful in approaching Proverbs interpretively. I particularly appreciate how Longman puts Proverbs in the canon, and solidly acknowledges its theological orientation and contributions. For instance:
“…the conclusion that the book is not theological is wrong. Proverbs is not rightly understood if it is taken as a book of practical advice with an occasional nod of the head to Yahweh. The book is thoroughly and pervasively theological” (p. 57)
Very well-put.

The section on the theology of Proverbs is quite thought-provoking, and the study of wisdom literature in other nearby cultures adeptly done.

Now, as to Proverbs proper. Like me, Longman isn't convinced that Proverbs has a "deep structure" providing a larger context even for the two-liners of chapters 10 and following (he grants that some sections seem thematically coherent, but he seems less inclined to see the grouping as hermeneutically meaningful than I).

Unlike me, Longman is agnostic as to authorship. As so many have done, Longman maddeningly says that 10:1 "explicitly connects Solomon to 10:1—22:16," yet the identical words in 1:1 have no necessary import as to authorship (p. 25). I wonder what Solomon would have had to have written, to convince gents such as Dr. Longman as to authorship. [UPDATE: I pursue this at great length in the appendix on authorship in my book.]

Second: as promised, the commentary uses Longman's own translation of Proverbs. I found his rendering interesting, and will refer to it for my own. However, at times it strikes me as a bit wobbly.

"Wobbly"? Translational style is both hither, and thither. Sometimes the translations are woodenly literal. "Yahweh detests stone and stone" (20:23); "Removing a garment on a cold day, vinegar on soda, singing a song to a troubled heart" (25:20); "Lambs, for your clothes, and he-goats, for the price of fields..." (27:26)

On the other hand, sometimes Longman paraphrases for no apparent reason. Most irritatingly to me, singulars often are rendered by plurals ("Go to the ant, you lazy people!" [6:6; verb and noun are singular]; cf. 13:24 [very awkward—first line plural, second singular]; 17:17; 18:24; 26:13-16; 28:25-26, and many others).

Sometimes he's fresh almost to the point of anachronism: "the tax man tears it down" (29:4; had me humming the Beatles' song [kids, ask your parents]).

What puzzled me for some time, as I read, was why a scholar such as TLIII so frequently refers to the New Living Translation, which is a pretty rank paraphrase. It was so frequent that I began to wonder whether he'd been involved in the production of that version in some way. Then I found it: Longman was senior translator for the Wisdom books in the NLT.

Third: the commentary itself. I struggle with what to say about this. Simply and truly, the commentary is mostly good and informative — but it is uneven. Perhaps it depends upon expectations.

Portions are quite good (such as the section on Proverbs 31:10-31, for instance). Longman virtually always deals with the Hebrew text, comments on the words, documents their meanings and the translation. His thoughts on the "fool" and "wisdom" synonyms are quite helpful, as are his comments on the eschatological possibilities in some of the proverbs. Whether or not you agree with his conclusions, you'll be challenged by Longman's lengthy wrestling with the identity of Woman Wisdom in chapter 8, and other knotty portions and topics. The footnotes and bibliography point the way to further investigation.

At the same time, other comments are disappointing, given the promised focus of the series. For instance, 18:24 is very difficult both to translate and to interpret, yet Longman deals with it in around 45 words. Sometimes one simply has the sense that proverbs have been hurried over rather than chewed over (i.e. 17:12; 27:21). He discusses the difficult 16:4, but doesn't really get to the bottom of it. Even his rendering overlooks the pronominal suffix ("Yahweh makes everything for a purpose," where the Hebrew has "his" or "its" purpose).

While the text is formally aimed at pastors, I have to say that the approach is more academic than pastoral. (For a modern example of the latter, see John A. Kitchen's commentary, which I mean to review...eventually.) [UPDATE: done. Kitchen chews over everything to the full extent of his ability.] The pastor will definitely find materials he can use for preaching and counseling, but they will be inferential rather than directed to those ends.

Appendix. Longman has an appendix of topical studies, where he groups and discusses related proverbs under 29 pages' worth of articles. His groupings are not the same as every other such study, and include: Alcohol; Appropriate Expression of Emotions; Business Ethics; Family Relationships; Guidance/Planning/Looking to the Future; Openness to Listening to Advice; Physical Discipline; Psychological Insight — and even Table Manners!

Small, but mighty. Footnotes, not end-notes! Indices! These are good things!

Less good are a few typos, and aspects of the layout. First the whole chapter is translated, and some textual/translational footnotes are placed here. Then the translation is reproduced verse by verse, with commentary; the reader must page back to the previous footnotes.

Summary. I'd say that Waltke and Kidner on Proverbs are two very different must-haves, for anyone who is seriously interested in diving deep. Longman's volume joins Duane Garrett's as a good-to-have: not indispensable, but I'm glad I own it, and will definitely use it in my studies.

Update: I have added some more meandering thoughts over at my own blog.

Dan Phillips's signature

21 comments:

Caleb Kolstad said...

Thanks very much for this review!

DJP said...

You know... my last comment thread didn't make two digits.

If this one goes the same way, Phil may have to let me go.

Jus' sayin'.

Highland Host said...

Why not 'lazy person'?

I recall Longman's bizarre view on Ecclesiastes from my seminary course - and that made me rather concerned about this book to begin with, so his refusing to allow 1.1 to mean what it says (you know the problem, Dan!!!) is not altogether unexpected

Phil Johnson said...

DJP: "If this one goes the same way, Phil may have to let me go."

Are you kidding? anyone who can keep a Pyro comment-count under 10 these days is a hero and a genius.

I specifically asked the vandal hordes to "take it easy" yesterday, but we got 80+ comments, including a flood from some miscreants who were desperately trying to pick a fight over what I haven't even said yet.

So if you can find a way to keep the hooligans at bay for a day or two so I can get some real work done, I'll double your salary.

DJP said...

So maybe I'm coming at this all wrong.

I should have said, "Please! No comments! I'm too busy! Get a hobby, kiss a girl, something -- really, I've got to go!"

McKinion said...

I appreciate your observations on the book. I have recently been using it in teaching through Proverbs and have found it helpful.

To be honest, I appreciated the brevity of some of his comments. It allowed me as the reader to understand the passage, but at the same time he didn't preach the sermon for me. Teaching and preaching through Proverbs effectively requires much reflection from the one preaching it. It is most effectively taught when the one teaching completely immerses himself/herself in the text in such a way that wisdom is truly applied. In other words, I think it requires a lot of personal experience in applying wisdom to one's life. I believe Longman's commentary allowed me to do that. At the same time, I agree with much of your criticisms.

Moreover, I appreciated that he limited his comments more to the text at hand rather than flooding me with information about proverbs in other cultures, etc.

I have also used Goldingay's volume on Psalms 1-41, which I found helpful. I would be interested in your observations.

DJP said...

Those are good points, Randy. But I'm sure you have had this experience, as I have: I've studied Proverbs literally for decades, but still an observation here and there will open up an angle I'd never considered. Kitchen has done that a few times (I've read up to chapter 4).

If you get a chance to look at it, sometime, check Kitchen on a passage you've already preached or taught. See if he has an angle that opens up something you'd not seen.

By contrast, I get the impression that generally Longman hasn't even looked at the text from that perspective, or not very deeply.

Andy said...

Thanks for the review Dan, I appreciate the time you've but into this. I hadn't come across this book, but I think I might grab a copy.

David said...

what, no "dan wallace" type comments?

that would of gotten you over 10 comments.

DJP said...

Well, David, I was toying with the idea of musing aloud, "Hm... wonder whether Dan Kimball has read this commentary?"

But that would be just naughty.

So I won't.

(c;

donsands said...

I just finished reading through Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, and am staring on Song of Songs.

Proverbs can be difficult to grasp, but Ecclesiastes is impossible.
I'd love a good commentary on that book.

Thanks for the review. It's good to know. Doesn't seem like the book for me, however.

DJP said...

Proverbs can be difficult to grasp, but Ecclesiastes is impossible.

< chuckle > I hear you.

Matt said...

Dan,

Your review is good overall, though I think your frustration with Longman's reticence to name Solomon as THE author of the Proverbs is a bit overdone. Certainly Longman would agree that Solomon authored some of the proverbs, but he would (and should!) heartily diasgree that he wrote all of them. After all, Lemuel and Agar mentioned by name as proverbial authors.

Further, not all the Proverbs are given authorial information. Should a Christian really be implicitly charged with giving in to "critical scholarship" when the Bible does not say explicitly who the author of some of proverbs is?

You can disagree, certainly, but please don't make this issue a litmus test for Christian scholarship. Perhaps the issues are not always so cut and dried; and perhaps to confess Solomonic authorship for ALL the Proverbs is actually contrary to Scripture's claims or says more than the Bible itself says? Perhaps.

DJP said...

Matt — where did I say, or even insinuate, almost anything you're asserting?

I just disagree with Longman, and can explain why.

Remarkable how you withhold from me the benefit of the doubt that you (mistakenly) accuse me of failing to extend to Longman.

opinion-minion said...

(Racing down a kind of rabbit trail...:)

I think that is a bit unfair to imply that the only reason Longman used the NLT was because he translated it. Obviously, there's a link, but who wouldn't use the translation that they were very familiar with, and that they, obviously, felt reflected accurate translations of the original text?

And, to be perfectly fair to all concerned, I have never read through the Bible in the NLT (although I'm *guessing* that the OP probably hasn't either) so I can't offer my 'scholarly' view of the translation itself.

steve said...

Opinion-minion wrote: I think that is a bit unfair to imply that the only reason Longman used the NLT was because he translated it.

You'd be surprised at how often this does, in fact, happen. I'm aware of both publishers who have asked for this to be done, and authors who have done this in an effort to demonstrate support for a specific translation--especially if they have a vested interest in it.

Jeremy Pierce said...

In reading this review for the first time, I have to say that Matt's concern seems fair. It's obvious that parts of Proverbs were not written by Solomon. He was long dead by the time Hezekiah came along, for instance. So if 1:1 is taken to indicate that he must have written the book, then we're in trouble. Perhaps you're only taking it as an introduction to chs.1-9, but Longman is open to Solomon as author of those chapters. He just thinks an introduction to the book doesn't necessarily apply to just the first section in a way that it doesn't apply to all the later ones. So he doesn't think we can be sure about those chapters' author.

Even the section attributed to Solomon doesn't require that Solomon personally wrote all those Proverbs (and that the ones from Babylon and Egypt that are very close were either coincidentally close or copies from Solomon). Why couldn't Solomon receive credit for finding and collecting some proverbs that he didn't personally write?

As for the NLT, there's no reasonable argument that it's a paraphrase. I've expressed my own criticisms of it on particular issues, but it's a translation that fits nicely into the dynamic model of translation that's widely used in literature outside the Bible, and no one ever calls those paraphrases. It's more dynamic than the NIV, but it's still a genuine translation, unlike the Message. It's backed by solid scholarship. The translation team includes some stellar people.

While it's possible (and maybe happens) that authors will plug a translation for financial gain or because a publisher asks them to, I think it's pretty clear that Longman actually played a role in the translation work, and he thus probably does approve of what they did in the main. Wayne Grudem regularly plugs the ESV, and people often accuse him of doing so in order for him and his friends to benefit from sales of the ESV. This kind of argument is no better than those who claim that a black person who supported President Bush was a race traitor and must be getting paid to do so by the Republican Party. Such talk should be far from the lips (and typing fingers) of believers when speaking of our brothers and sisters, unless there's significant evidence to substantiate the claim (and even then the proper path is to go to the person individually and then with another and finally with church elders). It's different to confront someone's public truth-claims publicly, but this seems to me to be a moral insinuation against a fellow believer with absolutely no evidence, and I have serious reservations about such things.

DJP said...

Easily answered, Jeremy.

Tellingly, you cite Matt with approval, but don't seem to notice my response to him: "where did I say, or even insinuate, almost anything you're asserting? I just disagree with Longman, and can explain why."

Like Matt, you don't interact with what I actually wrote; thus you don't advance beyond Matt's misfire; thus there's nothing further to answer, in terms of this review.

Second: you write, "As for the NLT, there's no reasonable argument that it's a paraphrase."

I can do bald assertions, too. There is every reasonable argument that it's a paraphrase.

There.

Noting that otherwise-credible scholars were involved in it is (A) not in question and (B) irrelevant.

Perhaps the issue is that there is a lot of fuzz between dynamic equivalence and rank paraphrase. If so, this is right on the leftward border and, I think, over that border.

Besides that, once again, my criticisms were very specific, whereas your condemnation is very vague and sweeping. Leaving no need for further response.

Then your bringing the racist analogy into it is just silly and pernicious. Maybe you meant to say I was like Hitler in some way?

You're the one who should apologize, Jeremy.

Jeremy Pierce said...

You complain about Longman's agnosticism about authorship, which happens to be agnosticism about authorship of the sections that are not labeled with an author (he accepts the authorship of sections with an author listed but notes that 1:1 probably refers to the whole book, as headings usually do, which means it must not apply to every section as if Solomon wrote every section). So I'm not sure what your complaint is supposed to be. My reason for not interacting with what you said is that you didn't really specify what the problem is. What view do you hold about Solomonic authorship that he denies or is agnostic about, if it isn't the view that Solomon clearly wrote chs.1-9, a view I did say something about?

Now, as for the comment about black Republicans, I should quote you: "you don't interact with what I actually wrote". I said nothing that accuses you of racism or associates you with Hitler. It's your own doing to raise that. All I said is that it's illegitimate to raise moral accusations against someone when there's no evidence, especially with a fellow believer (and I gave a similar example that occurs in politics), and you haven't responded to that. Instead, you've changed the subject and accused me of things I plainly have not done and then told me that I should apologize for pointing out a similarly-bad accusation in another realm that I figured you would recognize as bad. I gave an argument against taking Longman to have the immoral motivations you attribute to him, the same as I would argue against those who do so in the case of black Republicans. If you don't think that's fair, then address my argument and provide some evidence that your insinuation of wrongdoing in his support of the NLT is fair. Otherwise, I do think these cases are parallel, and that still does not imply that I'm accusing you of being like Hitler (as I wouldn't accuse Democrats who say that sort of thing about black Republicans of being like Hitler).

DJP said...

Again, very simple to respond. With the paucity of substance in your criticism, I'm tempted to follow suit and try to read your mind behind your words... but I'll resist that temptation.

First, since you (like Matt) refuse to do it, I'll quote me. I wrote:

"As so many have done, Longman maddeningly says that 10:1 'explicitly connects Solomon to 10:1—22:16,' yet the identical words in 1:1 have no necessary import as to authorship (p. 25). I wonder what Solomon would have had to have written, to convince gents such as Dr. Longman as to authorship."

I still agree with myself. Good point, me. I wonder what the answer to my question is?

Second: again, you won't deal with what I actually wrote, beyond reading my mind and telling me what I meant by what I wrote. I'll just affirm what I wrote. In fact, here it is:

"What puzzled me for some time, as I read, was why a scholar such as TLIII so frequently refers to the New Living Translation, which is a pretty rank paraphrase. It was so frequent that I began to wonder whether he'd been involved in the production of that version in some way. Then I found it: Longman was senior translator for the Wisdom books in the NLT."

Ah, that makes sense.

You want to suggest that I am making insinuations of impure motives? You'll have to stick them in there yourself. I made none. Just (as I said) was puzzled why a scholar kept quoting a paraphrase.

Like I told Matt, I just disagree with Longman.

This thread should have been closed months ago.

I'll let you have one more go, if you wish. Then I will likely respond, and close the thread.

DJP said...

(Left thread open another week; now closing)