Book Review: Ryan P. O’Down on Proverbs

Book Review: Ryan P. O’Down on Proverbs December 11, 2017

Ryan P. O’Dowd
Proverbs (Story of God Bible Commentary)
Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017.

By Lindsay Wilson

Ryan O’Dowd may be known to readers as the co-author with Craig Bartholomew of a useful survey of OT wisdom literature (2011). Here in this commentary on Proverbs, we hear the solo voice of O’Dowd himself.

As this is only the second OT commentary to appear in this series, it is worth looking at the distinctive features of the series itself. It is based on the NIV (a good translation of Proverbs due to Bruce Waltke’s involvement) having a twin goal of explaining what Scripture says, and also what it means for today in our (Western?) culture. Thus it seeks firstly to read it as the original author intended their audience to understand it, and only then read it in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus, the center of God’s big story. Each passage is addressed from 3 angles: listen to the story (the text, and any background to the text); explain the story (on its own and in the light of God’s big story) and live the story (how it can be applied today).

The introduction is just over 30 pages, with a useful section on literary analysis, not much on ANE background, but with extensive comments on the theological message and how to read it as part of the OT. In terms of structure on chapters 10-29, he is inclined to side with those who see some clustering (Heim, Waltke, Lucas, Wilson) rather than those who reject this (Longman, Fox, Clifford). However, this is undermined a little by the decision to comment on chapters 10-29 in chapter-length sections. Two strengths in this section are the focus on the theological meaning of the book, and the demonstration of how to read Proverbs as part of biblical theology. O’Dowd is careful not to read Christ into the text too early (see, for example, the section of 8:22-31), but rightly insists that any section of Proverbs must finally be read as part of the Bible as a whole. A reservation I have is the extent to which he sees Proverbs shaped by Deuteronomy (in the Introduction and later).

The long section on chapters 10-29 is preceded by a brief, further introduction, focusing mainly on structure and reading strategies for the individual proverbial sayings. Despite his openness to seeing clusters here, he proceeds through this section chapter by chapter, which makes it harder to pick up the recurring themes in ‘Live the story’. There are helpful explanations here of the individual proverbs (and their pairs or clusters) with useful information drawn from the Hebrew text. But there is no thematic integration here. If you were hoping for the kind of word or subject studies found in other commentaries on Proverbs, you will be disappointed. Since many preachers will cover chapters 10-29 partly by preaching on themes, this may limit the usefulness of the commentary for preachers. It would be difficult to use this commentary to trace through ideas like wealth, friendship, family, fools, the righteous, laziness, etc. in the book as a whole. The extensive subject index provides some help here, but it is a very cumbersome tool.

The sayings from 22:17-24:22 (the words of the wise) and 24:23-34 (more sayings from the wise) are not dealt with separately as coherent sections, but merely as part of the chapters in which they are found. However, the individual comments on these sections show an awareness of the specific issues they raise (e.g. the dependence on the Egyptian text, the Instructions of Amenemope). Chapters 25-27 are helpfully informed by Van Leeuwen’s studies on this section. He clearly explains the textual difficulties in chapter 30, but does not drown in them. Instead, he continues to look for the theological meaning(s) of these verses. The noble or valiant woman of 31:10-31 is one of the distinctive areas of Proverbs, but the explanation is a little brief, and a number of the options raised by others are not evaluated. The book closes with detailed Scriputure, subject and author indexes.

In summary, then, this is a useful supplement to other studies on Proverbs. It especially adds to the material on the theological ideas of the book, and their connections to contemporary culture. It is clearly written and interesting in the issues it explores. If I have one major objection to the book, it is this. Given the intended readership of the series, I was surprised to see how little time was devoted to teaching/preaching from Proverbs, and how to use it in ministry. The resources cited on p.49 are confined to understanding rather than using Proverbs. This is not to say that the material is unrelated to present-day issues, for the sections on ‘Live the story’ often use contemporary examples, often of parallels in a Western culture. But there is no systematic explanation about how to use the book in ministry situations of preaching and pastoral care. Too many of the theological discussions are left at the level of discussing ideas. It is very good at engaging with contemporary Western culture, its ideas and quirks, and so will thus be more useful in an apologetics rather than a church ministry setting.

Yet, this is a commentary to be commended for what it does, rather than criticised for what it neglects to do.

Lindsay Wilson
Ridley College (and author of the Tyndale OT Commentary on Proverbs)

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