A Constitution for the People of God: a ★★★★★ book review

What do you think of The Ten Commandments? Nope, I am not talking about Charlton Heston in Technicolor, but the words God spoke to Moses on Mt. Sinai. The Decalogue has been revered for the way it has provided a basis for law in Western culture, but more recently it has been a point of controversy. People have wondered if  the Ten Commandments—a religious words— on a courthouse wall are a violation of the separation of church and state. Sadly, many of us don’t think of the Ten Commandments much at all, or when we do we feel good about the two or three commandments we’ve managed not to break. In The Decalogue: Living as the People of GodDavid L Baker helps see the way these ten commandments are God’s “Ten Word” guide for how now we ought to live.

5169Baker is a lecturer in biblical studies at All Nations Christian College and former senior lecturer in Old Testament at Trinity Theological College in Perth, and the deputy warden of Tyndale House, Cambridge. He has also taught in Indonesia and is theauthor of several books and articles. His research interests include the Decalogue, Deuteronomy and wealth and poverty in the Old Testament.

The Decalogue itself provides the basic outline for this book. However an introductory section discusses the Shape, Form, Origin and Purpose of the Ten Commandments. This is followed by sections on the two tables. First a section on Loving God (commandments 1-5, all the Godward commands and the commandment about Honoring Parents), then a section on Loving Neighbor (commandments 6-10). A final section entitled The Decalogue Today serves as the conclusion and discusses the ongoing relevance of the ten commandments.

Baker’s introduction and concluding essays are developed from articles he has previously published. In his introduction he discusses the arrangement and numbering of the commandments in Judeo-Christian history, and the organization of the command into two tables. He describes the canonical forms (Exodus 20 and Deut. 5) and cultural parallels. He discusses the origins of the commandments as Divine speech—ten words direct from God, unlike the book of the Covenant, the Holiness Code or the Deutrenomic Law (29).  Finally Baker delineates the purpose of these commands as setting ground rules of how the covenant people ought now to live (having been liberated from slavery in Egypt).

Baker begins his discussion of each  of the commandments with a look at similar commands throughout the Ancient Near East, noting continuity and discontinuity with the surrounding cultures (i.e. He references the Hammurabi and other ancient legal codes, documents and literature from Canaanite, Ugaritic, Akkadian, Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian and other Mesopotamian cultures). For the most part there are ancient parallels, but there is no parallel in the ancient world for the concept of Sabbath rest. This is unique to the covenant community of Israel (though, Baker does note a special significance of seven in Ugartic and Canaanite literature)(72-73). Next, he examines each command with the frame of the ten commandments and the cannon, and draws out reflections as to their meaning for us. Baker’s focus on the historical  and canonical context enriches our understanding of the significance of these commands for the covenant community of Israel.

The concluding essay describes the ongoing significance of the Ten Commandments for providing an ethical frame and basis of life for the people of God—for the Jews first but also for Christians:

The Decalogue is the constitution of the People of God, written in stone by the supreme Lawgiver. In Old and New Testament times it provided the basis for life in the covenant community and has continued to do so for many Jews ever since. Christians too, grafted into the people of God by faith (Romans 11:11-24). recognize the Decalogue as God’s gift to them. Indeed for all who have ears to here, whatever their creed, this unique and fascinating set of laws still has a great deal to say about relationships with God and other people. It contains essential principles for living as the people of God that are as relevant in the twenty-first century as when they were first given (158-159).

Baker’s approach is  commendable, it is both historically and canonically sensitive.  My reading of the Decalogue was enriched by the way Baker presented them alongside other Ancient Near East literature, showcasing the idiom by which God spoke to and connected to Israel in its historical context. I could tell you this is the best book I’ve read on the ten commandments, but that doesn’t tell you much (I’ve only read a couple). More significantly, I will use this book if I am ever called upon to teach or preach the Decalogue. This book is a model of good biblical exegesis, sensitive to the thought world of the original audience and connected to life today.

I give this book an enthusiastic five stars and recommend it for preacher, bible teachers, students, and conscientious Bible readers who want to understand the Old Testament better (and its significance for us).

– ★★★★★

Notice of Material Connection: I was provided a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Entering Deeper into the Psalms: a book review

I know that I’m not alone in loving the Psalms. Many of us have found comfort, strength and words for prayer. My own love for the Psalms was whetted years ago when I read Eugene Peterson’s devotional works (especially The Long Obedience in the Same Direction and Answering God). Since that time I’ve read many good many more books on the Psalms, some devotional, some academic. I have a short list of books I really like on the Psalms, and am happy to add a new book to my list!

The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms by Gordon Wenham

So I was excited when I saw Gordon Wenham’The Psalter Reclaimed: Praying and Praising with the Psalms. Wenham is one of my favorite commentators  and is an adjunct professor at Trinity College, Bristol. I have appreciated his writings but have never read his treatment of the Psalms. In the Psalter Reclaimed,  Wenham culls together his lectures on the Psalms delivered between 1997 and 2010. Despite the occasional nature of these essays, there is a remarkable cohesion to the book as a whole. Wenham examines the liturgical use of Psalms and their personal devotional use in prayer. He also discusses the Messianic nature of the Royal Psalms (and in what sense they are Messianic), the ethics of the psalms, the value of praying the imprecatory Psalms, the vision of God’s steadfast love as expressed in Psalm 103, and the Psalm’s vision of the nations (enemies of God who at last lift their voice in praise).

This may be one of the greatest introductory books on the Psalms for the sheer breadth of what Wenham is able to cover in a short book. He comes from a strong Reformed Anglican tradition and therefore has a lot to say about the liturgical use of Psalms  to enrich our corporate worship and to provide moral instruction.  He discusses the various genres of Psalms in his section on ‘praying the Psalms’ and demonstrates how the various types (i.e. Pslams of Lament, praises,  Royal Psalms, etc.) speak to the various seasons of the Christian life.  This emphasis on the liturgical and personal use of the Psalms makes this a great introductory book for anyone seeking to enter deeper into the Spirituality of the Psalms

But Wenham is not simply writing a lay introduction. These essays also discuss how current scholarship enriches our understanding of the text.  And so he shows how speech-act theory helps describe the performative nature of the Psalms, Canonical l criticism reveals the meaning behind the Psalm superscriptions and the internal organization of the book,  he proposes a theological hermeneutic which takes the Royal Psalms past their historical-literary context into the realm of New Testament fulfillment, and he reviews historic and current discussions  of the imprecatory Psalms and whether they may be  appropriately prayed by Christians. Wenham’s skill as an exegete and a scholar are evident throughout.

I especially liked his treatment on the ethical import of the Psalms because Wenham’s Story as Torah was the book that alerted me to the way ethics were embedded in Hebrew Narrative. In abbreviated form he gives a compelling case for the ethical use of Psalms to provide moral instruction and encourages modern readers to mine the Psalms for what it tells us about Biblical Ethics.

Because this book is an edited collection of earlier lectures there is some overlap in the chapters which you wouldn’t expect in a full length monograph. Wenham also doesn’t say everything that needs to be said on the Psalms (though he points us to some great resources). But this book is an introductory text and I think that anyone’s understanding of the Psalms will be enriched by reading this. I recommend this book to scholar, student, clergy and lay-person alike. I give it five stars: ★★★★★

Thank you to Crossway books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for this review.