The Christ of Wisdom: A Redemptive Historical Exploration of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament

O. Palmer Robertson, The Christ of Wisdom: A Redemptive Historical Exploration of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2017. pp. xxi + 407. $19.97, cloth.

Dr. O. Palmer Robertson has made a career of writing thoughtful books on various areas of the Old Testament Scripture. His most recent, The Christ of Wisdom, is no different. In this volume, he comments on the traditional wisdom books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Surprisingly, however, he broadens his focus to include other biblical books that are not traditionally categorized nor understood as wisdom literature, namely Lamentations and the Song of Songs. He says that these wisdom books may be called the “how-to books” of the Old Testament, and offers the following summary for each book: Proverbs: How to Walk in Wisdom’s Way; Job: How to Puzzle; Ecclesiastes: How to Cope with Life’s Frustrations; Lamentations: How to Weep; Song of Songs: How to Love. After making some initial introductory comments on the nature of biblical wisdom and offering a defense of the inclusion of the two previously mentioned books, he goes on to provide his analysis of the books in question. He follows a format that is more like that of an Old Testament Introduction than a biblical theological study of wisdom literature (more on that below).

As a general comment, I begin with the most obvious difficulty: Lamentations and Song of Songs are not wisdom books. His explanations for them as wisdom literature is unpersuasive. To simply say that they explain some practical aspects of life is not adequate. If indeed we can read Lamentations as instruction on “how to weep” and Song of Songs as “how to love,” then we can approach any book of the bible in this similar way. Genesis is about “how to live in light of God as creator,” Exodus “how to live by the ten commandments,” Leviticus “how to live as holy people,” etc. This approach also causes us to no longer understand what makes the actual wisdom books as distinctive. Themes such as “fear of the Lord,” father-son dialogue, and others that are characteristic of wisdom literature are now lost. Robertson even states, “It is hoped that the generous reader will manifest a tolerance that will allow him to derive some benefit from the practical wisdom provided by these two books [namely Lamentations and Song of Songs], even though he may not find himself prepared to embrace [them] as, strictly speaking, wisdom books” (21). Such a statement seems to ask for special pleading, which may reflect uncertainty in his own mind. However, given Robertson’s careful and historical-redemptive insights, more of his comments on Scripture is indeed welcomed with open arms.

A second weakness is his comments on the nature of Hebrew poetry. He uses obsolete terms to describe Hebrew parallelism, which is a hallmark trait of Hebrew poetry (e.g. “synonymous” and “synthetic”; see pg. 75, 79-80). Modern studies in Hebrew poetry has ruled out the use of such terms as overly simplistic and inaccurate. The term “synthetic” is most egregious since one of the earliest critiques against the term was how unhelpful this was in describing parallelism. His definition of “synthetic” parallelism (“the second member of a couplet advances the thought of the proverb beyond the level of presentation in the first line,” 80) sounds strikingly similar to his definition of “synonymous” parallelism (“the second line repeats the thought of the first line, with some moderate variation,” 80). Historically, it is this type of unclarity that doomed this early system of categorization and poetic analysis.

A third general weakness is regarding the fundamental approach of the book. The subtitle is A Redemptive Historical Exploration of the Wisdom Books of the Old Testament. When I saw this, I was very excited because I have longed to know if a redemptive historical approach is even possible in the study of these books. In general, this type of analysis has not been done in the wisdom books. This is largely due to the fact that there is little to no references to the history of redemption or historical redemptive events in these books. Dr. Robertson is also aware of this as he states, “you will be hard-pressed to uncover a single reference to the flood, the patriarchs, the exodus, Sinaitic lawgiving, or Davidic king-making in these books of wisdom.” Thus, he raises the obvious question, the one many have asked, “how do you fit these wisdom books into the flow of redemptive history that consummates in the Christ?” (xvi). I was rather disappointed to find that he did not genuinely address his own question.

He says that redemptive history does not only move in a “linear fashion,” but also “cyclical.” This “cyclical pattern” is found in the daily aspects of life: the cycle of daily sin, father-son relations, dialogue amongst friends, coping with frustrations of life, etc. (xvi-xvii). Is this really what we mean by a “redemptive-historical” analysis? Robertson has not applied the traditional understanding of the method. Rather, he has redefined the term so that it can fit his analysis. Instead of redemptive history, he comments on redemptive living. I agree that the intent of these texts is to be imminently practical, but this is not the same as studying the panoramic sweep of the Lord’s activities in accomplishing/applying redemption for His people.

On a related note, by the title of CHRIST of Wisdom, I expected a conscientious and intentional study on the revelation of Christ in these elusive texts. However, what is found are matters that are more consistent with an Old Testament Introduction. For example, he discusses at length such things as authorship, literary organization/structure, dates, comparisons with literatures of the ancient world, etc. His comments were consistent with very conservative, traditional conclusions. However, I was mildly disappointed that a true historical-redemptive and Christocentric analysis was lacking. There were selected portions of each book where Christocentric observations were made, but for a book entitled Christ of Wisdom, I expected more. If you are expecting a strong, overarching portrait of Christ, this book will disappoint. If, however, one is interested in matters of introduction and aid for preaching, this book will excel.

Finally, I took some issue with his general thoughts on particular books. For example, regarding Ecclesiastes, I found his thoughts too positive overall. Regarding the Song of Songs, I felt he deemphasized (not exalted) Christ as a central theme in the Song of Songs (334-335, 339). Regarding Job, it is not clear if Robertson sees Job as guilty of self-justification or as a faithful, upright man (cf. his comments on pgs. 171 and 187).

In regards to strengths, there are many. Only a few will be mentioned here. First, the treatment of each individual book is excellent, specifically his thoughts on Proverbs. Dr. Robertson wonderfully acknowledges the significance of the “Two-way” theology of the book (43-44) and properly sees it as the schematic upon which we are to not only understand Prov. 1-9, but also the numerous aphorisms of Prov. 10-31 (46). He is particularly insightful on how to preach Proverbs (as well as the wisdom books in general). This is no small feat. Whereas the beginning and end of individual passages are self-evident in Prov. 1-9, it is not so in Prov. 10-31. However, Robertson provides an extremely helpful way to approach that section for preaching.

Another strength is his emphasis on imagery as a poetic device. In the area of Hebrew poetry, scholarly thoughts primarily focus upon parallelism and meter as the primary way in which to understand poetry. The consequence of this has been the depreciation of the importance of imagery in Hebrew poetry. Robertson does not fall into this trap. This emphasis on imagery is particularly helpful in his comments on two of books, namely Job and Lamentations. Concerning Job, the value of stressing imagery is seen when we compare the dialogue between Job and his three friends, which is the bulk of the book (4:1-27:23, 32:1-37:24). The essential message in this section is tiring in its repetition. They all state the same argument over and over again. It is the wide variety of images that makes this section truly wonderous. Focusing upon the images also provides a strategic approach on how to preach the book without sounding too repetitive to our congregations.

Concerning Lamentations, Robertson beautifully describes how the imagery enhances the book’s four-fold themes, namely 1) calamity has come; 2) sin has caused it; 3) God has ordered it; 4) there is hope nonetheless (290; 294-319).

Another strength worth noting is the way these books help God’s people cope with the reality of suffering. For example, Robertson says Job is about “how to puzzle,” meaning how do we live without knowing the answers to all of the mysteries of life, particularly the problem of suffering. This is a helpful reminder because neither Job nor the reader is really given a satisfactory answer to the answer of the cause of Job’s plight. Robertson reminds us that this is not what the book is about. Rather, it helps us to see that we don’t need the answer to that question in order to trust in the Lord. Thus, he insightfully says, “The Redeemer of a fallen humanity does not whisper in the ear of every struggling saint the cosmic circumstance behind his struggle. But through the message of Job, you have thus truth unveiled to you” (132).

Regarding Lamentations, Robertson notes the benefit of having this book in our canon when he says “there is a God-honoring way to respond to the deepest tragedies of life, and there is a seriously harmful way for the people of God to react to their calamities….its message continues to be needed, so that the people of God may maintain a proper balance in their lives as they pass through this alien, wilderness world as strangers and pilgrims” (279). I could not have said it better myself.

Finally, Dr. Robertson ends each chapter with a suggested bibliography for further study. This is a very helpful list for students and laymen alike.

Peter Y. Lee
Reformed Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C.