Book Notice: John Goldingay on Proverbs

John Goldingay
Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs for Everyone
London: SPCK, 2014.
Available a Amazon.com

By Felicity Clift

If I was to attempt to summarise my first thoughts on Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs prior to reading John Goldingay’s study on these books “for Everyone” they may be something like this:

- Proverbs. An almost random collection of sayings for the purpose of teaching young men how to live wisely and prosperously… and a token chapter about a woman who is said to be exemplary at homemaking.

- Song of Songs. Written by Solomon; about sex; supposedly a metaphor for God’s relationship to his people; excessively pastoral (i.e. lots of fruits and vineyards); also telling girls to remain virgins until they’re married.

- Ecclesiastes. Realistic, and perhaps pessimistic; written by Solomon; a biblical anomaly.

In presenting these as my first thoughts I do not mean that I believe these to be a true understanding of these books. Instead, these are the ideas that have accumulated from various presentations and which remain the first thoughts which come to mind – my internal word-association (some of which need to be unlearned). I am blessed to be studying at theological college as I write, and have recently had opportunity to study further the biblical genre of wisdom literature, but higher education is not essential for a clearer understanding of these books. Instead, Goldingay’s ‘Old Testament for Everyone’ series offers clarification and simplification.

In my previous review of Deuteronomy and Numbers for Everyone by Goldingay (London: SPCK, 2015), I commented on the value of reading from the beginning. It seems this is Goldingay’s formula in this series – to lay important foundations in the introduction and then to fill these ideas out, and the ‘filling’ is worth reading. I particularly appreciate Goldingay’s lighthearted willingness to present his opinions openly. Goldingay has once again engaged my thinking in new and encouraging ways.

His explanation for the Solomonic association with these books suggests that Solomon was ‘clueless about love’ (p.3) and therefore an unlikely author. In fact, the association is because Solomon was the ‘patron saint of wisdom’ (p.3). Goldingay also encourages deeper reading and broader application of the text. He suggests that the links to Babylon and Egypt that are found in wisdom literature represent the ability to learn from anyone’s experiences. All people are image bearers of God in his world, irrespective of their culture or beliefs (p.4-5). Amongst many other ideas, Goldingay comments on Christian social responsibility (p.9), on a different biblical attitude to poverty (p.28), on making plans (p.86), and on the importance of feminine teaching (p.152). As a woman from an evangelical upbringing I find Goldingay’s preparedness to acknowledge the place of gender in the Scriptures encouraging. Instead of presenting the writer and the speakers within Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs as generically ‘human’, Goldingay explores what the gender of the speaker adds to our understanding of the text. He suggests that beginning and ending Proverbs with a focus on teaching from women (Wisdom, Folly, and the strong woman of Chapter 31) ‘completes’ the masculine teaching in the inner chapters, just as the story of Moses and Pharaoh (in Exodus 1-15) is set in the context of women (p.152). Song of Songs similarly is embellished in my mind by Goldingay’s suggestion that the young woman is an initiator in this egalitarian relationship (p.245) and not a mere piece of property, however cherished she is by the man.

In reading this study guide, Goldingay has helped me to recognise the half-truths of my first associations regarding these books:

- Indeed, Proverbs and Ecclesiastes do contain some random collections of sayings, but they do so for the purpose of encouraging the audience to learn from the experiences of others (both men and women) in a practical way in their present setting.

- Song of Songs is about sex but not in a metaphorical God/human sense. It is an acknowledgement of the present reality and management of human desires.

- Rather than being biblical anomalies, the language and content of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs may be explained by their intention to look to the present (as distinct from other biblical books which tend to consider Israel’s future or past).

It seems that, just as the writer of Ecclesiastes wants to keep faith honest and so says ‘things that you wouldn’t have thought a churchman would say’ (p.177), Goldingay, too, wants to keep faith honest, and so presents ideas that are sometimes less conventional but not without grounds. His presentation remains engaging and rich and entirely God-oriented, and having now read two of Goldingay’s ‘Old Testament for Everyone’ study guides my appetite for the series, as well as the Old Testament, has been whet. Goldingay certainly makes it clear that, just as the Old Testament was ‘a living resource for understanding God, God’s ways in the world and God’s ways with us’ for Jesus and the New Testament writers, it remains so for Christians today (p.1).

Flyck Clift studies theology at Ridley College in Melbourne alongside working as a nurse in her local hospital. She is currently involved in leading a home group at church and enjoys encouraging people in integrating their belief in God with their daily living.

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