Philip Yancey, “The Bible Jesus Read”

See the mostly favorable post elsewhere on this site for Mr. Yancey’s The Jesus I Never Knew, which includes some general background information about him.  This book is also worth reading — and some of it very much so (see chapter-by-chapter comments below).  As with his other book, there is some political correctness here, but again it’s not insufferable.  Note that the book is not, however, about how Jesus read the Old Testament, let alone about the particular text (Septuagint, etc.) He likely read; in this regard, then, the title of the book may be misleading.

Here are my chapter-by-chapter comments:

Job.  This chapter is filled with insights.  Two basic ones: (a) The God-Satan wager is about faith; and (b) Job wins for God and all of us:  the best man, but in the worst situation — and he comes through.  So the man Job is God’s most amazing creation.

Deuteronomy.  The author sees this as Moses’ summation and last plea to the Israelites.

Psalms.  The author makes the genre point (that is, that when reading any Bible book one must bear in mind its particular genre if one is to interpret and apply it properly).  Taken as a whole, says the author, the Pslams reflects a mature and realistic faith.  He tells a great story (120) about Anatoly Shcharansky and the Psalms:

   Here is what Psalms can do for a person in distress.  In 1977 at the height of the Cold War, Anatoly Shcharansky, a brilliant young mathematician and chess player, was arrested by the KGB for his repeated attempts to emigrate to Israel. He spent 13 years inside the Soviet Gulag. From morning to evening Shcharansky read and studied all 150 of the Psalms in Hebrew. He so cherished his copy of this Old Testament collection of songs, that when guards took it away from him, he lay in the snow, refusing to move, until they returned it.

   Shcharansky writes that he cherishes the Psalms this much because when he reads them, “Gradually, my feeling of great loss and sorrow changes to one of bright hopes.”  During those thirteen years, his wife traveled around the world campaigning for his release. Accepting an honorary degree on his behalf, she once told a university audience, “In a lonely cell in Chistopol prison, locked alone with the Psalms of David, [my husband] found expression for his innermost feelings in the outpourings of the King of Israel thousands of years ago.”

Yancey notes, “Historian Paul Johnson mentions Psalms as one of the great unifiers of Christian history:  Benedictines and Puritans, Luther and Xavier, Wesley and Newman and Calvin all loved and continually recited the psalms” (123 note).  The New Testament quotes them more than any other Old Testament book, notes Yancey.  Finally, he sees the imprecatory psalms as anger therapy (137-38).

Ecclesiastes.  The author has an interesting discussion of this book (especially its beginning and end) and existentialism; he mentions the Catholic existentialist and author Walker Percy.

The Prophets.  The author says that reading them is the best way to get to know God (he notes, as I’ve read elsewhere, that our God is unique among deities in that he loves us).  He writes, “Orthodox rabbis still forbid anyone under the age of thirty to read the first three chapters of Ezekiel” (181); and I photocopied this quote (204):

   “The Lord has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me,” the Hebrews lament during this time of crisis (Isaiah 49:14), and it is to these people that God makes a vow.  “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast?” God asks rhetorically.   “Though she may forget, I will not forget you!  See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”

   At this bleak moment, the nadir of the Old Covenant, God gives a series of promises in direct response to the questions tormenting the Hebrews.  Bible scholars call them the Servant Songs, and they appear tucked into Isaiah 42-53.  They are at once gorgeous poetry and essential prophecy, some of the most explicit prophecies we have.  Taken together, the Servant Songs set the stage of the Messiah, God’s answer to the Hebrews’ question.

   In effect, God puts his reputation on the line.  He will answer the Hebrews’ bitter complaint with an act of boldness, imagination, and courage that none of them could have dreamed of, an event that will test the limits of human credibility and divine humiliation.  God agrees to join them on planet Earth, “to write himself on the pages of history,” in Jacques Ellul’s words.  The mysterious Servant Songs of Isaiah plainly foretell the Incarnation (as the New Testament points out at least ten times).

Advance Echoes of a Final Answer.  The last chapter addresses how Jesus’s coming resolves some of the Old Testament’s hard questions, such as “Does God care?” and “Do I matter?” and “Why doesn’t God act?”