Ruth, Esther, Ecclesiastes, The Song of Songs, Lamentations

Written by Wesley J. Fuerst Reviewed By Derek Kidner

It is convenient to have commentaries on the ‘Five Scrolls’ together in one small volume; and while this grouping of these books in the Hebrew Bible was more liturgical than logical, there is something to be said for seeing them side by side in all their startling diversity.

It was a happy choice to allocate this commentary to Professor Fuerst, who is admirably sensitive to the different moods and purposes of these books, graceful in his style of writing, and always aware of the ‘general reader’ for whom the series is designed. The introduction to each book gives useful but not excessive information about the scriptural context and the main interpretations to be reckoned with; then the text and commentary alternate, section by section; finally there are two or three pages on the ‘message’ of the book in question. The text is that of the neb, but the commentator occasionally dissents from its renderings and transpositions (e.g., Ruth 2:13; 3:1; Ct. 4:12; though he accepts the lice-picking of Ct. 1:7 and is silent or perhaps speechless before the locust’s paunch in Eccl. 12:5).

The series has been criticized, with some justification, for including the biblical text in full, leaving all too little space for the commentator (and change for the purchaser); and indeed the comments here are very economical: there is seldom room for any full discussion of a detail of the text. Yet there is a deftness of touch which largely makes up for this, for we are made aware of any important crux that we encounter, and are given a judicious opinion of the probabilities. The result is a book which can be read straight through, without the trouble of referring from one text to another, and in which an expert scholar plays the role of accompanist rather than prima donna.

Turning to the component books, the story of Ruth is beautifully handled: we are helped to see the artistry of the narrative and appreciate the movement of events, but also to pick up the message it has for us about providence, fidelity and the history of salvation. Enough is said in passing to acquaint us with the debate about the purpose and provenance of the book; but we are encouraged to take it at its face value and absorb its lessons. With Esther, too, the approach is open-minded and appreciative. Various theories about the book are mentioned and briefly weighed up, and while the commentator takes it not as sober fact but as ‘a historical novel or a festal legend’, he sees a core of history in it. More important, he makes the effort to read it in its own terms and to hear what it has said to persecuted Jews before and after Christ, and what it can still say to us.

Ecclesiastes is accepted as the work of a single author, apart from the annotations at the end. He is seen as a collector who is more concerned to miss nothing than to contrive a selectively harmonious scheme, and who has a ‘way of moving easily amid pieces of mental furniture which are very different and not logically or schematically arranged’. This comes rather near to saying that Qoheleth finds room in his thought for mutually incompatible ideas—which would be a more disturbing kind of plurality than that of multiple authorship. While Professor Fuerst stops short of this, he makes Qoheleth’s thought too tentative and inconclusive to be fairly summed up by the resounding ‘conclusion of the whole matter’ in the last two verses of the book. It may be harder, but in my view it is more rewarding, to press for a synthesis which makes those verses the point of arrival which they profess to be.

In the introduction to the Song of Songs we are given an excellent survey and critique of the widely varying views of it that compete for our attention. The assessments are always fair and ready to concede disputable points, but the commentator has no hesitation in opting for the view now commonly accepted, that these poems are love-songs which need no overtones of allegory or moral conflict (e.g., between the rival claims of mercenary and disinterested love) to justify their canonicity. Perhaps he interprets the scenes from nature too invariably as erotic imagery (overplaying allegory on this plane as much as he underplays it on the spiritual plane), seeing almost every serenade as an invitation to sexual consummation rather than to courting. But his final comments point out tellingly how far our sinfulness has put beyond our reach the full reality of a sexual love which is as innocent as it is passionate, the reality to which the Song of Songs bears witness.

Finally Lamentations brings us back to history in its harshest form. The situation is cogently presented, the forms of the five chapters are given a careful analysis; above all, the theological achievement of the book is made very clear, together with the lessons it continues to offer us.

To sum up, it would be hard to find a generally fairer, more perceptive or better-written treatment of these books. While it makes no pretence of being a substitute for full-length commentaries, it repeatedly earns the reader’s gratitude by acquainting him with the current discussion of this literature, and by taking him rapidly but unhurriedly to the heart of the matter.

Derek Kidner