Shelf Life Book Review: Lamentations and the Song of Songs

Abram Kielsmeier-Jones

Lamentations and the Song of Songs
Westminster John Knox Press, 2012

Harvey Cox and Stephanie Paulsell address the history of interpretation of these two biblical poems—from early Jewish interpreters to modern philosophers. Cox notes that these poems are not merely “time bound or event bound,” but “timeless” (pg. 24) since they speak to universal themes like seeking joy amidst heartbreak, deliberately remembering an absent one, and rebuilding among ruin.


Cox suggests reading Lamentations, a poem that laments a nation’s loss in the aftermath of war, in a “participatory mood” (pg. 15). As he highlights key themes, he brings Lamentations into dialogue with wars and aftermaths of wars today. Particularly illuminating are his applications of the book to World War II in Germany and 9/11 in the United States.

As Paulsell examines Song of Songs, she notes that it celebrates love in the context of a covenant relationship. She offers commentary passage by passage, giving summary titles for each. For example, Song of Songs 1:7–14 is titled “A Dialogue of Delight” (pg. 198), and 4:1–7 is titled “Altogether Beautiful” (pg. 231). Like Cox, Paulsell also calls us to devotionally pray our way through the Song of Songs, conscious of our relationship to other physical bodies, creation and God.

This commentary’s greatest strength lies in its emphasis on engaging the biblical text. Cox and Paulsell move fluidly across centuries and cultures as they connect Lamentations and the Song of Songs to current contexts.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 3

Getting Past the Past

Jessi Strong

My fiancé and I sat on the couch in our pastor’s office; he jiggled his foot nervously while I curled my legs underneath me and leaned against him. It didn’t matter that we were there by choice—I felt defensive even before the pastor began asking questions. I knew premarital counseling would help us learn how to communicate, fight fair and express love and forgiveness. But the experience was terrifying.


It was terrifying because it exposed all my failures. The parts of my personality I attribute to familial quirks are really glaring shortcomings. I tell myself that my inherited conflict-avoidance is really just “being cautious.” But it’s accompanied by a destructive tendency to shut down when things get tense. The painful experience of dredging up past conflicts forced me to take a fresh look at my sinful habits—ones I’m now trying to break, but wonder if I’m doomed to repeat.

Joshua 24 records a conversation that addresses a similar concern. In God’s presence, as Yahweh renews His covenant with Israel, Joshua recounts the spiritual history of the Israelites: “This is what the LORD, the God of Israel, says: ‘Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants’ ” (Josh 24:2–3).

What follows is an argument between Joshua and the Israelites. Joshua insists that the people will turn away from the LORD; the Israelites counter this, promising to serve faithfully. If you’ve read much of the Old Testament, you know that Joshua is right. The Israelites disobeyed God many times leading up to this covenant, and after they enter the promised land, they continue to perpetuate a cycle of disobedience, punishment and then, out of desperation, repentance. It’s a pattern I recognize in myself.

But when repentance follows cyclical mistakes, it opens the door for blessings that wouldn’t otherwise occur: forgiveness, restoration and redemption. In his first-century letter to churches in Asia, Peter reminds his readers that Christ’s work indeed brings them out of sin and death: “You know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect” (1 Pet 1:18–19).

This reminder makes all the difference. I haven’t been charged with the unattainable task of making my own salvation. Instead, it comes through the blood of Christ. Although I may be heavily influenced by my unique experiences and relationships, I’m not doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over: Jesus’ work redeems my past and—thank God—my future.

In our counseling sessions, we learned to respond to fear and sin with the truth of Christ. After being hurt or having to make a very personal confession or realizing that we’ve caused hurt, we now pray together, using Peter’s reminder to the early churches: You are no longer a slave to sin. You were “redeemed from the empty way of life … with the precious blood of Christ” (1:19).

Biblical references are from the New International Version (NIV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 1

Caught with His Hand in the Dipping Bowl

John D. Barry

While eating His last meal, Jesus brings great sorrow upon His 12 disciples by stating that one of them will betray Him (Matt 26:21–22). Each disciple, “one after another,” asks, “Is it not I, Lord?” (Matt 26:22). Jesus identifies His betrayer as the one who “dipped his hand in the dish with him” (Matt 26:23). Imagine the awkwardness and tension this statement must have aroused. Does Judas’ hand in the dish have deeper significance than simply identifying him as the culprit? Maybe context can bring us some clarity.

Step One: Find and Understand the Literature of the Time (and the Time After)


We do not usually consider a passage in light of literature that post-dates it, but there is one exception: oral tradition. During Jesus’ time most people were illiterate; oral tradition provided a viable and stable way to remember what was said and taught.

The Mishnah, a collection of rabbinic sayings, emerged as a written source around AD 250. However, the sayings contained in that book existed long before they were compiled and written down. Given that Jesus was Jewish and a rabbi (although a very untraditional one), He would likely have known some of the oral traditions in the Mishnah.

By consulting this source, therefore, we can better understand the social customs we encounter in the New Testament.

Step Two: Consult the Ancient Sources

In Matthew 26 Jesus and the disciples are eating the Passover meal. To learn more about the social context of the meal, we can use Bible software to search for “Passover” in the Mishnah. Here we find that “on all other nights [but the Passover meal], we dip once, [but] on this night twice.” 1 In the scene we’re focusing on in Matthew, Jesus likely refers to the second dipping since they’re in the middle of the meal.

According to three different rabbinic sources, pious Jews were instructed not to neglect specific manners associated with dipping rituals. 2 Non-rabbinical literature from Qumran reveals that this ideal was also present among other Jewish groups. According to The Rule of the Community, a document from the Dead Sea Scrolls, it was customary for the Jewish group at Qumran to eat based on rank within their social structure. According to first-century AD Jewish sources, allowing someone to eat first was a sign of respect. 3 It appears that there is no common dish in this scene with Jesus, so when Jesus says the one who will betray Him is dipping his hand in the dish “with him,” He is referring to Judas’ dipping being out of social order. 4 Neglecting social order reveals that Judas is rebellious: He is showing disrespect to someone in authority and ultimately disregarding ritual rites. Based on the sociological context, Matthew uses this phrase to show that Judas is not only a betrayer of Jesus, but also of his own religious rules.

Step Three: Examine the Biblical Context

Why were there two times of dipping at the Passover meal? Examining the biblical context helps us understand the timing and significance of the dipping. Cross-references within the Passover account in Matthew 26 point us back to Exodus 12. Here we find that the first dipping at the Passover meal symbolizes the blood spilled to establish God’s covenant with Moses. The Israelites were commanded to dip hyssop in blood and smear their doorways with it (Exod 12:21–27). The blood is a sign for the Angel of the LORD to “pass over” them during the 10th plague upon Egypt. The second dipping symbolizes the blood referred to in Exodus 12:48–51, when the covenant with Abraham—of circumcision (originally from Genesis 17)—was reestablished among the Hebrews under Moses’ leadership.

The Passover festival reminded the Jews of the blood that had been and must continue to be spilled for the covenant. However, Jesus’ blood would be the last that needed to be sacrificed because it would fully atone for the people’s sins. Judas denies this, and by doing so, he denies the Spirit of God at work among His people. It’s in this context that Matthew places Judas’ betrayal: Judas is opposing both the covenants of the old Moses and the new Moses: Jesus.

When we read a scene in the Bible, we sometimes miss significant points because we don’t fully understand what’s going on. Consulting ancient sources can help us understand Judas’ rebellion in light of the Passover meal. This scene also teaches us more about Jesus’ character: A confrontation with Him reveals the state of our hearts. Here, Jesus uses cultural norms to reveal the state of Judas’ heart and his rebellious response. May our responses tell a different story.

To discover background information about an ancient source, look up the name of the source in a Bible dictionary, such as Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary or Lexham Bible Dictionary. Go to or download the free Faithlife app to use Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Interested in reading rabbinical sayings that Jesus would have been familiar with? Pick up a translation of The Mishnah at

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 1

John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at

1. The Mishnah Pesahim 10.4., Column 6.1–8.
2. See The Babylon Berakhot 47a; The Babylonian Talmud Gittin 59b; The Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 4.4.
3. See Josephus, War 2.130–32. Also see Josephus, Ta’an 20b; 1QS 2.19–23. This tradition may have stemmed from Sirach 31:14–18.
4. F.C. Fensham, “Judas’ Hand in the Bowl and Qumran,” Revue de Qumran 5 (1964–65), 259–61.

When God Doesn’t Act

John D. Barry

2 Chronicles 21:1–23:21; 1 John 1:1–4; Psalm 102:1–28

“When Jehoram ascended to the kingdom of his father, he strengthened himself and murdered all his brothers with the sword, and even some of the princes of Israel.… And he did evil in the sight of Yahweh. But Yahweh was not willing to destroy the house of David on account of the covenant that he had made with David and since he had promised to give a lamp to him and to his descendants forever” (2 Chr 21:4, 6–7).

Biblical stories like this teach us not only about God’s actions, but also about His decisions not to act. It must have been difficult for those suffering under Jehoram’s ruthless reign to understand why God would allow him to stay in power over them, His people. Yet God knew there was something even larger at stake: long-term, righteous reign over His people—and salvation itself. The people’s suffering could not outweigh the importance of preserving the line of David, which held the hope of God’s people. Salvation comes through David’s line, as Jesus, the great Savior of the world, is David’s heir (Matt 1:1).

Eventually, John the evangelist was able to testify, “What was from the beginning [and thus existed even during the times of suffering we endured], what we have heard [being all that has been promised], what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and our hands have touched [because John actually knew Jesus and met Him in His resurrected form], concerning the word of life [being Jesus—God as both His Word and as His personhood].… [Now] our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:1, 3). John saw the day when God would ultimately lift the suffering of His people and place it on His Son so that His Son could die as the ultimate sufferer for us (compare Isa 53:10–12; Psa 22).

God does not cause suffering, but there are moments when—as much as it hurts Him—He allows it. If He has a saving act at work among us in the midst of these moments, they’re worth it. God will always make good on His promises, and He will always far exceed our expectations.

What do you think can be accomplished through your current sufferings? Is there a hurting person in your life you could come alongside to offer them the hope of Christ?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.

John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at

Shelf Life Book Review: Hidden in Plain Sight

Matthew James Hamilton

Hidden in Plain Sight
Bethany House, 2012

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Boyd Seevers is well aware that not all biblical texts are engaging. He says ancient writings can seem almost impenetrable because of barriers of geography and time. He wrote this book to help readers penetrate those barriers.

Seevers isolates the most “boring” texts from the Old Testament to show that we can find meaning and application in each one. He addresses texts like Leviticus, the second half of Joshua, and genealogies throughout the Old Testament. In addition, he examines repetitive texts like Kings and Chronicles, Ecclesiastes, the Prophets and Apocalyptic Prophecy.

In each chapter Seevers explains the original context of these passages and then demonstrates how they can apply to us today. Those with little background knowledge of the biblical text will benefit from this study.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 5 No. 3