Review: The Fear of the Lord Is Wisdom

32510942Tremper Longman III is Distinguished Scholar of Biblical Studies and Robert H. Gundry Professor of Biblical Studies at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California. Longman is no stranger to the world of ancient wisdom literature. He received a PhD in Ancient Near Eastern Studies from Yale University and has authored numerous related books and articles, including widely used commentaries on Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, and Psalms. Most recently, Longman has brought together his over three decades of reflection and academic rigor on biblical wisdom into a theological introduction that synchronically traces the theme both inside and out of the Old Testament.

The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel establishes the genre of wisdom literature as more than mere practical or ethical sayings that arose amid cultural challenges of the ancient world. Longman meticulously surveys the literature and demonstrates a consistent and coherent theological category that threads the redemptive-historical narrative. It is a thrilling and comprehensive study that does much to add value to the genre for contemporary audiences.

Longman divides the book into five parts: (1) the heart of wisdom: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job, (2) wisdom elsewhere in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, etc.), (3) Israel’s wisdom: cosmopolitan or unique?, (4) further refining our understanding of wisdom, and (5) the afterlife of Israel’s wisdom (Apocrypha, Dead Sea Scrolls, and New Testament). As Longman opens The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom, a survey of the most forward presenting Old Testament wisdom books commence with the establishment of a theological foundation— “that the fear of the Lord is the proper response to God’s wisdom . . . [and] is fundamentally the result of a relationship with God” (p. 62). Longman does acknowledge the practical and ethical side of wisdom as a theme in these books, but uses the section to uncover the theological emphasis that undergirds each of them for the forthcoming pages.

In part two, Longman carefully looks at wisdom observable elsewhere in the Old Testament. For Longman, this does not necessarily mean that such should be considered as “wisdom” literature (see appendix 2), but it does mean that “they contribute to our understanding of the nature of wisdom” (p. 64). The reader is guided through wisdom found in Deuteronomy, Psalms, Song of Songs, and a few prophets. Longman also examines four pivotal Old Testament figures, including Joseph, Daniel, Adam, and Solomon. In part three and four, Longman further establishes his theological premise as he addresses the nature and understanding of wisdom in general. For Longman, the source of true wisdom is God according to the books that speak of wisdom (p. 126). Longman does well to address the consequence of wise and foolish behavior, and helpfully guides readers away from a rigid understanding of retribution theology.

Lastly, in part five, Longman engages both the Second Temple period and the New Testament. There is significant continuity demonstrated between the Old Testament and the New, and Longman rightly identifies Jesus as “the epitome of God’s wisdom, or, perhaps better, the very incarnation of God’s wisdom” (p. 256). Thus, much of the theological notions that were found in the wisdom core (part one) are not only present in the New Testament, but they are incarnate. Longman concludes, “the church is called to relationship with him and to inculcate and demonstrate the same fear that is the beginning of wisdom . . . Christians are God-fearers who submit to the instruction of Christ . . . in all of life” (p. 256).

Longman has provided a much-needed theological engagement with the wisdom of the Old Testament. I appreciated that Longman sought to balance the practical and ethical aspects of wisdom within an underlying theological framework. Longman has done much to detail and demonstrate the theological significance of biblical wisdom, and thus, has removed the prior misunderstandings concerning its origin and use in ancient Israel. It would have been interesting to see how wisdom penetrates pseudepigraphical works of the Second Temple period, or possibly other noncanoical work subsequent to the New Testament. That said, the comprehensive scope of The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom demonstrates a strange familiarity with biblical wisdom that few scholars apart from Longman could exhibit.

The Fear of the Lord is Wisdom: A Theological Introduction to Wisdom in Israel by Tremper Longman III is a fascinating display of biblical theology that uncovers a life-giving aspect of biblical wisdom, bringing a fresh sense of relevance to a seemingly stagnate body of literature. Longman is exhaustive and comprehensive, but readable and accessible. There are few books on the market that provide the level of breadth and depth regarding biblical wisdom as Longman has demonstrated here. This is an important book that should be used and read widely. It comes highly recommended.

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