Monday, November 22, 2010

Walkabout with Jeremiah: Andrew W. Blackwood's Commentary on Jeremiah

I have lived with Jeremiah for ten years, during which world history has been as turbulent as it was in his day. I have found him a demanding companion, yet incredibly compassionate and understanding of my weakness. I have shared his bitter discouragement, and I have climbed at his side to the hilltop from which he pointed to the golden turrets of the Jerusalem that--ultimately--will be. It is my prayer that this essay may enable the reader to share my friendship with Jeremaih (p.17)
With such a heartfelt and auspicious beginning, one can hardly doubt the sincerity and intensity of Andrew W. Blackwood's Commentary on the "weeping prophet;" however, his commentary on Jeremiah has fallen into some obscurity as a gap has opened between older classic scholarship and a dearth of new research and revelation. Blackwood himself has quite a legacy, though is probably not a name frequently on the minds of the current saturated Bible scholar. His commentary was on my Lead Pastor (missionary and visionary)'s shelf, and I sought to liberate it in the name of Christ and with a request of permission as a careful afterthought. Blackwood's commentary is not only the first commentary I have read cover to cover, but also the first commentary I have ever read beyond an occasional peek into Matthew Henry. The experience was involving, at times hard work and at times inspiring. As someone always at least slightly suspicious of aids that so directly affect our reading of the text, I confess I was sometimes uncomfortable as I was directly conscious of an outside source directly meddling with my understanding of the text. But Blackwood sows no seeds of doubt. His voice makes careful suggestions only becoming boldly emphatic in moments of passion and inspiration.

This particular work is laid out much more like a reference work than the recent Expositor's Bible Commentary on Jeremiah and is not as easy or invigorating a read as Brown's commentary, but Blackwood is not stuffy. His work informs and in its greatest moments, it truly inspires. The methodical progress through a book of the Bible in a commentary is a project that forces attention on every verse and constant evaluation of information. Using a commentary as a reference work seems a dramatically different experience than reading the whole commentary from cover to cover.

Reading a commentary straight-through is something like going through a full depth study with a mentor whispering in your ear. At the end of Blackwood's work I find myself feeling much like I've gained an understanding of Blackwood himself as well as Jeremiah. I get the sense of a scholar who searches for the heart of the message and the heart of the man even while constantly harried and hassled by conflicting thoughts of textual criticism and archaeology. Many times I felt that the commentary was overshadowed by concerns of textual integrity and authorship. The scholar often interfered with the poet and the prophet and Blackwood wages an obvious war with the concerns of the scholar, the concerns of the preacher and the concerns of the prophet's heart. Many times he triumphs in finding the heart of the passage in the midst of the textual concerns, and many times he finds textual criticism preeminent. In spite of this struggle, Blackwood has  moments of passionate prose that illuminate and echo the voice of the prophet.

Jeremiah was a poet, not a systematic theologian; he spoke in flashes of lightning, not the dusty rhetoric of the schools. In this oracle he gives tests of true prophecy, though not in the analytical detail we prosaic Westerners desire. Prophecy is universal. It penetrates. It exalts God's name. It is nourishing. It is productive. It burns (Jeremiah 20:9). It breaks up what should be broken up. It is profitable. Underlying each thought is the essential: It is the word of God, not the word of man. (p. 177)
The commentator writes of Jeremiah 23:23-32 a passage describing God's fierce displeasure at the false prophets who steal their words from one another and fail to speak the truth of God which is a hammer and a fire. The contrast God paints between the true and the false is both inspiring and unsettling. The false prophets produce smooth messages with a professional vim and vigor alongside mystical claims. God speaks with words that burn and smash. They're full of heat, light and fury breaking down defenses to ignite the heart, disturb the conscience and renew the mind. This is the difference between the word of God and the word of Man. As Blackwood says, there's is no empirical litmus test, but the witness of the Spirit and the recognition of the truth.

Much of the Old Testament is difficult for our culture and context to grasp. Scholarship is an invaluable tool that God has given in great measure to our generation and to our western culture. God has allowed us the freedom to study and learn vast amounts of knowledge that help illuminate the wisdom of God. Our generation, in its fullness and apathy, has been given the privilege of providing a Biblical education for the world through publishing and the internet. As one statistic was summarized by K.P. Yohannan, head of Gospel for Asia, "You get more Bible teaching in six months than a persecuted Christian in China gets in ten years" (paraphrase). We should make the most of the opportunity we have been given, turn off the T.V. and dig into a book. Give yourself a Bible education. Learn from Jesus. Learn from the Holy Spirit. Learn from the men He taught through the ages. Commentaries are not always easy to read. They are not always outright inspiring. But they can bring understanding to passages of scripture that may lay dormant in your passive reading without an external resource and revelation.


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