12 February 2008

Book review — Proverbs: a Mentor Commentary, by John A. Kitchen

by Dan Phillips
Proverbs: a Mentor Commentary, by John A. Kitchen (Christian Focus Publications, Ltd.: 2006; 790 pages)
The author: John A. Kitchen (not to be confused with Egyptologist Kenneth A. Kitchen) pastors a Christian Missionary Alliance church in Stow, Ohio. (Don't know a great deal beyond the denomination, beyond that a friend who attended CMA churches referred to them as "Appliance" churches, and that stuck in my mind.) About the individual church, I can only observe that they clearly have done business with some T-shirt shop, but it wasn't Frank's.

Kitchen is a published author several times over, and holds a Doctor of Ministry from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (1996), a Master of Divinity from Columbia Biblical Seminary (1987) and a Bachelor of Arts from Crown College (1983).

The agony and the ecstasy: I think it's no secret to Pyro regulars that I love Proverbs, really want to get some published about it, and one day would love to do a commentary on the whole book. My aim would be to produce a commentary that is accessible, solid, and stylistically pithy and memorable (like Proverbs itself). I would want to deal with the original text in a manner that is theological, whole-Biblical, and features a practical/pastoral emphasis.

I think there's a real need for such, particularly on Proverbs. Bible-believers haven't had many commentaries to choose from that are verse-by-verse, exegetical/expositional, solid, readable, and based on a study of the Hebrew text.

And so while I dither around in not-yet-published-land, I view every new entry with some anxiety. Will it make my contribution pointless and redundant? I know, I know — that would be good for the church, and there are quintuple-plus digits of men who would doubtless do a better job of it than I. But I hope you won't fault me too harshly for wanting to make some notable and lasting contribution while still in an ante-vermicular-fodder condition.

So, is this the book that does it? Is the proposition now, "Since Kitchen, why Phillips?"

Almost. 'Way too close for comfort. But maybe I can cherish the hope that a little room is left for both of us.

What's in it. After a two-page Preface that ends with the ringing Reformed cry Soli Deo gloria, Kitchen provides a 26-page introduction to the book. He deals with Proverbs' historical and canonical context, with extensive references to related Scripture (this is characteristic of the book as a whole). He makes the excellent point that Proverbs "must be read and interpreted within [the] larger Biblical context if it is to be rightly understood" (p. 15). Though he does not say so explicitly, Kitchen here is launching a salvo against the scholarly tradition of isolating a hypothetical "wisdom movement" within Israel that is independent of the Law and the Prophets. To this fantasy, Kitchen replies with a sound and correct negative.

As to authorship, Kitchen ends up arguing that it is likeliest that Solomon is responsible for chapters 1—29 of the book. This is a minority position, but I think that it is the best respectful response to the actual data. Admitting that certainty is impossible, Kitchen then suggests that Solomon "could have known of and collected" chapters 30—31 (p. 23), and the men of Hezekiah put the book in its final form (p. 24). I find this overall conclusion more satisfying than, say, Longman's overly-agnostic position.

The introduction is closed out with helpful discussion of how to interpret and apply Proverbs, as well as its theology. Then pages 37-725 provide verse-by-verse commentary, followed by a thoughtful appendix on wisdom and folly in Proverbs, a detailed thematic index of Proverbs (pp. 737-751), a brief Bibliography, and thorough indices of subjects and Scriptures.

What's good about it.
Kitchen attends closely to every word of Proverbs, and that's very good. More than once, Kitchen's comparison of various translations alerted me to interpretive conundrums I hadn't yet noticed. He approaches the text as a believer and a pastor, and is a close student of Proverbs. He asks a lot of questions, and approaches the text afresh. Kitchen also is sensitive to issues regarding the Hebrew text, virtually always (as in 99.99999%) coming down in favor of the traditional text without emendation.

In his comments, Kitchen clearly has always considered the Hebrew text, and so is not prone to the mistakes and sloppiness which English-only commentators regularly and necessarily make. (I think he makes a wrong turn at 22:6, but it isn't through thralldom to the KJV; interpreters [and translators!] legitimately differ.) Kitchen is usually sensitive to alternative texts, translations, and interpretations, and gives his own reasoned assessment of them.

As to the information Kitchen conveys, he is unhurried. He will give cross-references again and again as familiar topics arise and recur. Like Solomon himself, Kitchen treats each proverb virtually as if it the reader had only that section of his commentary in hand — rather than saying (in effect) "Here's another proverb on a sluggard, and I already said all I have to say about that, so let's move on."

Above all, it is clear that Kitchen approaches the text as a believer, and this is essential. The text isn't a brute, free-floating fact; it is part of Scripture, and Kitchen deals with it as such. He compares Scripture with Scripture, and inquires as to its intellectual and practical implications as truth.

What could be better about it. Two categories suggest themselves to me here, one in the author, and the larger in the publisher.

Style. I feel that, ideally, a commentator on such a stylistically-memorable book should comment with flavor. That is, the book is all about communicating God's wisdom with tasty, memorable, thought-provoking pithiness. It is most fitting if a commentator/writer can do similarly. Derek Kidner is a perfect example, though one often wishes the book were four or five times longer and more detailed. Waltke's writing is "tasty," though overwhelmingly academic for many readers.

I hesitate to say this, for fear that the criticism may seem harsher than intended, but: Kitchen's writing-style is fairly vanilla. While he has clearly thought hard about the text, the prose style of the comments is often flavorless and unmemorable. This is not always the case, as when Kitchen describes a proverb as "a stubby sentence pregnant with meaning," and "college in a cup" (p. 38). But it is usually the case. I don't know of a better (or worse) way to say it than this: the experience of reading Kitchen was always informative, but rarely engaging.

Also, Kitchen interacts very sparingly with other exegetes , theologians, or writers by name. The vast bulk of the endnotes are either from NIDOTEE, TWOT, and BDB. Beyond that there are some endnote citations of Kidner, Whybray, Murphy and Delitszch, but no extensive in-text interaction.

Now to the publisher. I'm grateful to Christian Focus for doing this at all, for offering a solid commentary at such a decent price. They've done Bible-believers a service in making this volume available.

But — well, have I ever mentioned that I really hate end-notes? Well, I do, and this book is badly afflicted with them. This is even more problematic to the more academic reader, because Kitchen often refers to "the Hebrew word," but does not transliterate nor provide that word in the text. You have to keep a second bookmark, and you must repeatedly turn back to the end-note to divine what word he's talking about. This is even more gratuitously annoying than usual, because Kitchen's end-notes tend to be very brief, and could easily have fit on the page.

Worse, sometimes Kitchen does not even directly present or transliterate the Hebrew term in text or end-notes. For instance, on 14:16, Kitchen says that a term "is difficult to translate," and he then discusses it — but never says what that term is. You have to deduce it from the endnote on the next sentence, where the citation of an authority happily also contains the Hebrew term.

Also, the only other time I've been more aware of the need for a good, firm-handed, visionary editor is in reading Jay Adams' books. In Adams' case, as great as his content usually is, he desperately needs someone to deal decisively with his style. Adams indulges in a (rather overwhelming) wild addiction (which can't be overlooked) to the constant (and unnecessary) overuse (and abuse) of parenthetical remarks (—which sometimes threaten to outnumber the non-parenthetical words in any given sentence!). Reading Adams is like riding in a car whose driver constantly stops to read street-numbers. You get there eventually, but the ride makes you dizzy.

In Kitchen's case, it isn't so much his composition as his text. The editor did nothing with Kitchen's text to make it more inviting and useful. It is all exactly, exactly the same: Chapter number, single verse in bold from the NAS, commentary. There is no variation, and no help.

What I mean is that there are no notes of content or structure, no helpful "handles" for the reader. For instance, see the comment at 22:17 (p. 504ff.). This features an excursus on the relation of the text to The Wisdom of Amenemope — but it not distinguished by font-size, heading, margins, or anything else. It is not labeled, headed, offset nor inset.

Kitchen suggests an outline for the section, but that outline has no impact on the unchanging monotony of the arrangement. Chapter name, verse one, commentary; verse two, commentary; verse three, commentary. No variation.

This is always the case: if you read every word, you'll see that Kitchen suggests outlines here and there. But you have to read every word to find them. Look up an individual verse, and you may miss it. The editor did not help us by pulling them out nor incorporating them in the text in any way.

Contrast that with virtually any other volume I can think of; for instance, Waltke, or Kidner, or Crenshaw, or Fox, or Garrett. It is as if no thought whatever went into the layout. This neither adorns the hard work that Kitchen did, nor does it reward the reader.

For the sake of the good and helpful work that Kitchen has produced, I wish that the publisher would produce a second edition. Commission a visionary editor, hand the text over, let him move the endnotes to footnotes, use Kitchen's outlines, cluster the related verses. Adorn the content by a useful and inviting form.

The sum of the matter. Kitchen's commentary definitely fills a gap. Unlike Kidner and Garrett, it covers every verse in some detail; unlike Bridges, it is informed by the Hebrew text; unlike Delitzsch, it is up-to-date; unlike Waltke, it will not overwhelm a reader who lacks advanced education. One misses the sense of Kidner's and Waltke's depth and wealth and scope of reflection, yet one has useful material for any study or sermon.

With those strengths and limitations in mind, I do recommend Kitchen's commentary on Proverbs to any serious student or teacher/preacher. I will myself refer to it when I preach or teach on Proverbs.

And when I write my commentary, God willing, you'll see Kitchen's name in the text.

And in the footnotes!

UPDATE: the Logos edition of this work removes my objections about endnotes.

Dan Phillips's signature


VcdeChagn said...

Adams indulges in a (rather overwhelming) wild addiction (which can't be overlooked) to the constant (and unnecessary) overuse (and abuse) of parenthetical remarks (—which sometimes threaten to outnumber the non-parenthetical words in any given sentence!).

This is my writing style. I have to constantly try to keep it in check and rewrite sentences.

Great review. My reading list is so overwhelmingly full, but this book might have to be added.

I read a proverb to my sons (I have no daughters) every night before bed and have been doing so for about a year.

As I go through them, I come across little points that I need to look up. I think reading a whole commentary would be beneficial.

Only one parentheses in the entire post...whew

Kim said...

Well, if you're planning on having footnotes with your volume, I'm definitely buying it.

I'm definitely a fan of footnotes.

Fred Butler said...

Hey Dan,
I have been meaning to email you this question:
In your opinion, if I had to pick up three commentaries on Proverbs, which ones would be the best?
If just one, which one should I absolutely have on my self.


Anonymous said...

Have you done any graduate work in wisdom literature, Hebrew, or ANE literature?

Donn R Arms said...

Thanks Dan,

You are right about SOME of Jay's books but in his defense, your observation is true largely of his earlier books, especially his book on divorce. I believe you will find that he has improved over the years. I have been urging him to publish revised editions of several of his books for years but he has so much more he wants to write that going back over something he has already done does not appeal to him.

Great analogy. I will be forwarding it on to him. Blessings!

David A. Carlson said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Nash Equilibrium said...

Dan, I would never read a theology-heavy book like this one, but you're such a great guy I just can't keep from commenting! Somebody stop me!

I used to say that at Pyro, one could read about everything but the Kitchen's Ink, and now you've thrown that in, too!

Drew said...

Why, in this computer age, does ANYBODY do endnotes? That was my number one complaint with the latest McLaren book, too. I know you have bigger complaints about McL, but a hatred of endnotes, that is our common ground, for now.

I really hate endnotes.

S.J. Walker said...

Thanks Dan,

I'll definitely look this up.

BTW, that last graphic was...precious.

S.J. Walker said...

And I'll take all the endnotes out of all my old notes and papers from college, just for you Dan.

MSC said...

Aside from your own forthcoming contribution, what do you think are the best commentaries on Proverbs, especially those that do the best job of explaining the idiomatic expressions?

FX Turk said...

Dan is trapped in an internet vortex at work which is forcing him to post via proxy (me), so while the avatar is mine, the comments below are Dan's. --cent

VcdeChagn – “This is my writing style. I have to constantly try to keep it in check and rewrite sentences”

Ditto, which may be why I’m sensitive to it.

Most trenchant remark about my writing-style was made by a college student a couple of decades ago: “You write like you talk.” It was both a compliment and a criticism. The parenthetical asides are part of that. (BTW there’s another writer I respect immensely who also fights the battle of the parentheses.) [I know you people don’t believe this, but Dan means me -- cent]

“I read a proverb to my sons (I have no daughters) every night before bed and have been doing so for about a year.”

That’s a great idea. I may just have to steal it.

Fred Butler – “In your opinion, if I had to pick up three commentaries on Proverbs, which ones would be the best? If just one, which one should I absolutely have on my self.”

That’s hard. I have to ask, “For what purpose?”

For the pastor, I’d say…hmm. Well, I’d say Kidner, Waltke, and Bridgeskitchen.

Okay, that’s cheating, but it’s hard. Kidner, Waltke… and Kitchen. But then I’d say try to get Bridges, too. (You can online for free; search “Bridges for free” on Pyro)

If only one… you’re killing me. Again, for a pastor, I suppose Waltke. But I love me some Kidner, a lot.

For anyone else, Kidner.

Judah – “Have you done any graduate work in wisdom literature, Hebrew, or ANE literature?”

Yes. MDiv is in OT, taught Beginning and Advanced Hebrew and Old Testament Theology at Talbot Theological Seminary, did my Master’s thesis on Proverbs, have taught poetical books at two other institutions.

Donn – “Great analogy. I will be forwarding it on to [Jay Adams]. Blessings!”

Ouch. I will prepare to be (severely) nouthetized!


Drew – “Why, in this computer age, does ANYBODY do endnotes? …I really hate endnotes”

I have said exactly the same. It is simply inconceivable to me. People who don’t want them, don’t have to look at them. People who do are irritatingly inconvenienced. Footnotes do not lower a book’s usefulness for non-footnote-readers; endnotes really lower usefulness to those who do read them.

S.J. Walker – “…I'll take all the endnotes out of all my old notes and papers from college, just for you Dan”

Now THAT’S what I’m TALKIN’ ‘bout.

S.J. Walker said...

Dan has sure been having internet troubles lately. I think the baldness causes internet wave refraction. Or something like that.

Don't worry Dan, I'm catching up quickly in that dept.

VcdeChagn said...

That’s a great idea. I may just have to steal it.

more info than you'll want to know, but I feel like typing it anyway :)

It started because one night I got so frustrated with my two oldest boys that I stopped our daily devotions, put them in bed (they were 4 and 2 at the time) and made them lay quietly while I read Psalm 119 to them. All 176 verses.

The next night, they wanted more. Since we do a Psalm in our daily devotions, I decided to read them a Proverb. Now they won't go to bed without it.

So Soli Deo Gloria for using my frustration to produce a tradition like this.

And as for the internet problem, I highly recommend a phone that can be tethered to your laptop for internet. Very handy...or at least a phone you can type on (Motorla Q9, Treo, etc). PDAnet plus such a phone means internet access anywhere but the boonies.

Yeshua said...

"did my Master’s thesis on Proverbs"

Have you ever heard of Amenemope?

"To this fantasy..." Understated. I like it.

"This is a minority position" Re-read that statement and consider some of the "minority" positions you are against--make that meanly against. Oh wait, you can't because, "I think that it is the best respectful response to the actual data." Wow. Linguistically well played, thinking on the other hand gets a firm kick to the nuts. Your "conception" of actual data is quite aggressive and entertaining I'm sure.

After Proverbs you can present us with your work on how there is no differences between Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.

Let modern, rationalistic, Enlightenment thinking, with a spirit influenced by Hobbes commence:

Anonymous said...

Difficult to be too harsh on Christian Focus - they are a UK publisher on a really tight budget and that often shows - my fellow elder here, Eric Lane, wrote their Focus commentary on Proverbs (a more basic commentary for the average guy) so I know something about their work process. It is not unusual to pick up a CF book with poor typeset, mistakes and typos throughout. I have come to learn that for a UK publisher to publish at all (in a relatively small evangelical market) means some nice to haves just aren't there - I imagine this is the case with some of the notes arrangements and editing etc. Good, coherent review. I shall add this one to my library.

DJP said...

I certainly don't mean to be unreasonably harsh. Not every book can be like an older T&T Clark volume. But, with modern software being what it is, I don't think there'd be any extra cost to check the box that says "footnotes" instead of "endnotes," and do a bit of editing. That'd be a start.

As I say, it's worth having as-is; it just makes one long for those touches that would raise it a notch or two.

Stefan Ewing said...


The Christian and Missionary Alliance started in the 19th century as a non-denominational parachurch missions agency, founded by Albert B. Simpson, a Canadian Presbyterian minister. It was in its genesis an organization for like-minded believers from different churches to support overseas missions. Over the years, it morphed into a church. There's a brief history here, that includes a link to a PDF chronology.

The C & MA has done a lot of work in East Asia over the decades, and my first real, fruitful contact with evangelical Christians was when God led me to a Bible study group of Chinese Canadian believers from a C & MA church.

Their distinctives include believers' baptism. They are continuationist, but conservatively so, and decidedly not Charismatic. Their Doctrinal Statement upholds the exclusivity of Christ, His work of substitutionary atonement, and salvation by grace through faith in Him, but seems to affirm unlimited atonement.

Poetress said...

For most of my academic life (not very lofty-I've just been a student often!) I have been used to employing the Harvard system of referencing, where authors are cited clearly throughout the text. For example, 'Birchall (2004) believes that...' or 'Trees are green and there is on denying it'(Brown, 2005). The full citations are then given in a list at the end of the text (presumably like endnotes). I actually find footnotes much more intrusive, probably because I have become accustomed to the Harvard system.

Sorry, no spiritual wisdom to offer here, but I do enjoy following the discussions here.

K. Elijah Layfield said...

This was an especially helpful review and instructional on writing a commentary. Thanks!