Review: Conspicuous in His Absence

Conspicuous in His Absence, Chloe T. Sun. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Adopting the approach of theological interpretation, explores through various lenses the significance of the absence of mentions of the name of God in Song of Songs and Esther.

If it is accurate to say that God is the central subject of the Bible, what do we make of the absence of mentions of God in two of the books of the Bible? Absence? What books? Song of Songs and Esther. If we hadn’t noticed, we might have been absorbed in the love poetry of Song of Songs, or the storytelling of Esther. Chloe T. Sun has noticed and makes this the subject of one of the most thoughtful considerations I’ve read of these two books. The experience of the absence, or apparent absence of God is one most of us have experienced and Sun notes that these two books serve as a counter to the overwhelming presence of God elsewhere in scripture.

After some introductory material, Sun begins by considering the theological work exploring the presence and absence of God in other parts of scripture. She notes the receding character of God’s presence in later periods of scripture, and the placement of these books at the center of the arrangement centers the experience of absence amid presence. Chapter two looks at these two books as countertexts to the wisdom books, showing wisdom in nature, erotic love, and human responsibilities–a fuller picture of the wisdom of God.

Chapter three looks at the element of time in both books. There is the timelessness of love in Song of Songs and the breaking in of time in the lover’s absence. In Esther, there is the central idea of “for such a time as this,” the coming together of the strands of Esther and Mordecai’s lives and the plots against the Jews. These moments in time of absence intensify the longing and expectancy for the presence of God. Chapter four shifts from time to temple. Much of Song of Songs revolves around the garden, a place of love, and Esther occurs in a palace with gardens, harking back to the garden temple of Eden. The imagery points toward the presence of God even in absence.

These books bookend the megilloth, five books connected with the five feasts. Song of Songs is associated with Passover; Esther is connected to Purim. In time Purim ends the Jewish year, weeks before the beginning of the year with Passover. This is a season of absence within a year of presence. Sun considers the resonances in the books with the associated feasts and the significance of a rhythm of absence and the remembrance of presence. Finally, Sun looks at the canon, and the resonances and dissonances in other books with these two. Here again, Sun develops the dialectic between presence and absence.

As she concludes the work, Sun made an observation that tied together much of the material for me:

“Christian faith is a dialogic faith. Through prayer and interaction with God, we may find the dynamics of a Christian journey that involves doubt, protest, lament, faith, and hope. In other words, when we sense God’s silence, we do not keep silent. We voice our thoughts to him and we take action using the best of our knowledge to enact change and to maintain order as much as we are able” (p. 294).

This book combines careful theological reflection that brought out new insights into both books for me while helping connect them to the broader testimony of scripture. While the book reflects good theological scholarship, what made it “sing” for me is that it is a book of theological formation, that makes sense of our own longings for presence in the absence of God, not only through these books but in the larger dialectic of presence and absence that runs through scripture.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Interpreting the Wisdom Books

interpreting the wisdom books

Interpreting the Wisdom Books: An Exegetical Handbook, Edward M. Curtis. Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic, 2017.

Summary: A handbook offering step by step help in moving from text to sermon exegeting and expositing the Wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs.

It is not often that members of most churches hear preaching from the Wisdom books of Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs, apart from citations in topical sermons, or an occasional venture into these books. That is regrettable since there is so much of profit in all of these books. A grad student friend once described a period in his life of profound depression and said that the book of Ecclesiastes was the only book he could read, and it got him through this dark season.

The purpose of this book is to help pastors and teachers who want to tackle one or more of these books, giving practical, step by step assistance in moving from text to message. The handbook is not a commentary on these four books, but assumes a willingness to do the hard work of moving from careful, personal study (preferably in Hebrew) of the text, to interpretation, and finally to preparing and proclaiming messages from these texts.

What the author does is focus in on the particular issues involved in exegeting these books, applying good general principles of exegesis to this particular genre. He begins in chapter one with considering the genre, the nature of Old Testament Wisdom and the particular ways in which Hebrew poetry and proverbs function, including a discussion of parallelism and other devices like metaphor and image. This, I thought some of the most helpful material in the book.

Chapter two considers the primary themes one finds in each of the Wisdom books. This chapter, while including much helpful material, does approach being at least an overview commentary of each book, and feels a bit like a shortcut in the process. I would personally advise reading the book multiple times and trying to arrive at primary themes or a basic outline of the book by oneself. Nevertheless, there are helpful observations, including the importance of the idea of the fear of the Lord in Proverbs, or hebel in Ecclesiastes.

Chapter three gets down to the spade work of good exegesis: ancient near East backgrounds and parallels with the Wisdom books, the challenges of textual criticism (especially difficult with Job), doing good translation work from the Hebrew text, and then considering what others have written. Each section here includes a helpful list of basic resources to aid in this work.

Chapter four explores basic interpretive issues specific to each book. In Job, this includes reading individual passages in light of the whole book (otherwise Job may sound really bad, and his friends really good!). In Proverbs, the same applies and is particularly important when it comes to interpreting a particular proverb in terms of all the proverbs on this topic, which often balance each other. Likewise, in Ecclesiastes, the tensions within the book mean it is vital to reach a balanced understanding of the whole. In Song of Songs, so much of the issue is understanding the love poetry one finds here without so breaking it down in a message that it, as the author observes, has “the same impact as ‘explaining a joke.’ ”

Chapter five moves from exegesis to proclamation, and some important considerations in proclaiming the wisdom of each book. He gives examples of developing preaching outlines for Proverbs 2 and Job 28, and then turns to principles for each book. There is a strong emphasis on application, showing how this wisdom bears on modern life, whether concerning suffering and faith, unanswered questions, marital love, or the everyday wisdom of Proverbs rooted in the fear of the Lord.

Chapter six is a kind of summary or recap, showing the process of moving from text to sermon. He uses the examples of a topical study of friendship from Proverbs, and a study of Job 4-6 on Job’s friend Eliphaz.

An appendix, contributed by Austen M. Dutton surveys the software and online resources available for the study of the Wisdom books. Dutton includes some of the best free online resources as well as software running from inexpensive to more costly. A glossary of important terms (also highlighted in the text) is included.

The word “handbook” is a good descriptor for this book. It offers the person who will preach or teach from Wisdom texts a step by step framework for careful textual study, good interpretive principles, and homiletic considerations, without doing the work either of the preacher or the Holy Spirit. Curtis also provides sufficient background and overview of key themes of the books to make the case for the value to be found in studying and preaching them. His examples throughout convey that this is an interpreter who has spent long hours with great love studying and teaching and applying these books, and one who believes you want to do likewise!

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.