Jun 13, 2011

Esther & Ruth

5 Min Read

It is a privilege to review Esther & Ruth, coming as it does from one of this reviewer's favorite series, and written by one of this reviewer's four favorite living Old Testament commentators (the other three being John Currid, John Mackay, and Dale Ralph Davis). I tend to purchase everything written by these four authors, and I would heartily recommend that Reformed pastors do the same. It will never be money wasted.

It would be difficult to praise this work highly enough. It is well-written, with excellent and memorable turns of phrase. Duguid holds up Christ for us in both Esther and Ruth, and yet not in any artificial or anachronistic way. It is scholarly, but with that scholarship worn lightly enough to appeal to almost any audience. In fact, although the target audience, given the parameters of the series, is primarily preachers and teachers (see the series preface on page vii), this particular volume will be useful to anyone who wants to know more about these two books. It could be useful in one's devotions (which is how I read the book), or for Bible studies as a study guide that everyone reads. And it will certainly be useful for the preacher and teacher.

Duguid gives us his take on the meaning of Esther and Ruth in the Preface, which no one should skip:

The essential conflict between the two kingdoms—the empire of Ahasuerus and the kingdom of God—plays itself out in the lives of flawed and unexpected individuals, as God delivers his people once again from the threat of extinction. Meanwhile, in the Book of Ruth, the Great Redeemer shows his love and compassion to the embittered Naomi as well as to her foreign daughter-in-law, Ruth. His grace brings home the disobedient prodigal daughter with empty hands, so that he can astonish her with unexpected fullness (p. xi).

This brings me to the one puzzling aspect of this book. It is not clear to me why Esther, though occurring later in the canon, is treated first, while Ruth is treated second, though coming earlier in the canon. There is no explanation given as to why this is the case.

Esther is treated in 9 chapters covering the 10 chapters of the book of Esther (chapters 9 and 10 are both treated in one message). This amounts to 126 pages.

Duguid uses contrast to emphasize relevance to us today. A good example is his treatment of Vashti:

The Lord too has prepared a sumptuous banquet for his people on the last day. But when God summons his bride (the church) to his banquet, he does so not to expose her to shame but to lavish his grace and mercy upon her. He doesn't force sinners to come unwillingly to his feast, but gently woos them and draws them to himself (page 15).

Bucking the current feminist trends among Esther scholars, Duguid does not hesitate to criticize Esther for some of the things that she does wrong (or fails to do!). Duguid compares Esther's mentality in relation to culture unfavorably to Daniel, at least early in the story (p. 29). And yet, such a compromise does not put her out of the reach of grace, or later obedience. Duguid never allows criticism of Esther to cloud the sun of grace that God is determined to shine on His people. Duguid compares this situation to a Christian who marries a non-Christian spouse, even though he or she knew it was wrong (ibid.). Esther's beauty treatments are compared and contrasted with Jesus' preparation for ministry as one way in which Esther portrays Christ to us (pp. 30-31).

In chapter 4 of Esther, we learn that Esther “didn't catch on to the seriousness of the situation immediately” (p. 47). The reason why she did not catch on was her compromise with the world. When we do this, we “easily find ourselves becoming isolated and distant from God's people and out of touch with God's concerns in the world” (p. 47).

This reviewer detected the wholesome influence of Christian Counseling Education Foundation (Paul Tripp, Ed Welch, et al) in his treatment of Haman's idolatry. What drives Haman? His own idolatry:

His emotional strings were being pulled by his idol, which was public respect. When that idol was fed, he felt good; but when his idol was challenged, it led him to malice and anger...His joy and his anger were simply the outward expressions of his heart's idolatry...Haman is a case study in what happens in our hearts when our idols are challenged (p. 65).

The treatment of Ruth is no less stimulating and helpful. Five chapters (all of Esther and Ruth started out as sermons, in keeping with the series' goal to bring churchly exposition to its readers) deal with the 4 chapters of Ruth, totaling 63 pages (chapter 1 has two messages, and each subsequent chapter in Ruth has one message).

Duguid shows his craft with words when he describes “moments in life when God's pursuit of us seems like that of a persistent mosquito, constantly buzzing around our heads and causing us pain, and we are utterly powerless to shake him off” (p. 139). Only a few pages later, describing Ruth's decision to go with Naomi, he writes “There was nothing kosher about Ruth. She knew she would be about as welcome in Bethlehem as a ham sandwich at a bar mitzvah” (p. 142).

Duguid's sharp literary sense is evident in his close reading of the text. A good example is his description of the women in Bethlehem, whose reaction to Naomi's homecoming de-humanizes Ruth, not even recognizing her as a person. The narrator describes the two of them coming into Bethlehem, but the women only talk as if one person is present. He writes, “There almost seems to have been an unspoken communal conspiracy not to mention the Moabitess” (page 144). This close attention to detail surfaces again a few pages later when he discusses Naomi's wish in 1:9:

Naomi's wish that the Lord would grant them rest with their husbands in Moab is, perhaps, merely a conventional turn of phrase on her part (see Ruth 1:9). If she is aware of the implications of her request, however, she is asking the Lord to grant them exactly what she and Elimelech never found: rest outside the covenant community. Her thinking still shows the marks of confusion as to the way to true blessing (page 147, emphasis original).

Duguid is no less theologically astute. Consider his assessment of Naomi's stay in Moab compared to her homecoming: “Had she stayed contentedly 'full' (as she thought) in Moab, Naomi would have missed out on the far greater blessing of a prime place in the history of redemption” (p. 149). Applying this to us yields this insight: “Invariably, though, he has not brought these trials and losses into our lives because he hates us and is seeking to afflict us, or to get even with us for our sin” (ibid).

There are many more insights that Duguid has to offer. Some pages in my copy are nothing but underlining! This commentary comes highly recommended to all. 

Rev. Lane Keister is pastor of both Hull Christian Reformed Church and Hope Reformed Church in Hague, North Dakota, and is author of the weblog Green Baggins.