Volume 23 - Issue 2
The Friendship of the Lordby Deryck Sheriffs
There can be no doubt that there is all too often a gap between those matters which are of concern to academic biblical scholarship, and those which are of concern to the average Christian in the pew. As an examination of scholarly books and journals will soon make clear, academic biblical scholarship is very largely concerned with issues concerning the background, development and interpretation of the biblical literature. The average Christian in the pew, by contrast, is largely concerned with spirituality, the practical question of what it means to live a life pleasing to God in today’s world.
There can also be no doubt that the gap between the concerns of biblical scholarship and those of the average Christian is unfortunate for both sides. Any study of the Bible which does not eventually explain more clearly what it means to live a God-fearing life fails to reflect the purpose for which the Bible was written (see 2 Tim. 3:16–17). Conversely, any form of spirituality that is not rooted in rigorous and detailed study of the Bible runs the risk of being based on the ideas and aspirations of the contemporary world rather than on the truth about God and what he requires of us.
The strength of The Friendship of the Lord is that it attempts to bridge the gap between spirituality and academic biblical study. Deryck Sheriffs teaches the OT in an academic context at London Bible College, and as he says in the preface to his book, he believes that the ‘… goal of holding academic studies and life concerns together can be achieved if there is a will for it’. Dr Sheriffs clearly does have the will for it, and in The Friendship of the Lord the two are held together in a helpful and stimulating fashion.
On the one hand, he goes through a series of biblical texts ranging from Genesis 1 to Ecclesiastes, looking carefully at their literary structure, the meaning of the original Hebrew, and how they both reflect and differ from the Middle Eastern culture of their day. To give just one example, in his chapter on ‘The Daily Rhythm of Life’, he looks at the use of the language of solar imagery in Numbers 6:24–26 and Psalm 84:10–11 and explains how this both reflects the language used to describe royal favour in the Ancient Near East and implicitly challenges the importance given to kings in that culture: ‘The priestly blessing acknowledges Yahweh as the source of all life and well being. If it is Yahweh who is the source of well-being, the king is secondary.’
On the other hand, he also looks equally carefully at what these OT texts have to say to us today, considering them in the light of the NT and the issues facing us in today’s world, and looking at crucially important topics for spirituality such as ‘Walking with God’, ‘Facing Mundane Reality’ and ‘Guilt and Restoration’. On the last of these, for example, he looks at three ‘penitential’ Psalms (Pss. 51, 32 and 38) and compares and contrasts them with contemporary Mesopotamian prayers of confession. As a result of this comparison he concludes that the Psalms reflect a view of guilt and restoration centred in relationship with God which can provide us with a realistic understanding of guilt that will enable us to tackle the false guilt induced by ritualism, legalism, and exaggerated claims about faith healing and demon possession.
Sheriff’s attempt to bring together the academic study of the OT and contemporary spiritual issues is, as I have indicated, laudable in intention and generally stimulating and helpful in practice. Nevertheless, I think it has three limitations.
Firstly, it is clearly a book for those who already have a good working knowledge of OT studies. I suspect that the ordinary Christian in the pew who picked up this book looking for spiritual guidance would sink very rapidly. It would be good if Dr Sheriffs could be persuaded to write a more popular version for a wider readership.
Secondly, the weight of the book is undoubtedly on the side of OT studies. Although there are numerous spiritual insights to be found, I felt they tended to get a bit lost in the minutiae of exegesis and the explanation of the OT’s cultural background.
Thirdly, I was surprised that the prophets did not get more of a look in. The only really extended engagement with the prophetic literature was a study of Jeremiah’s Confessions. Obviously Dr Sheriffs would not be expected to cover the entire OT in detail, but surely an OT spirituality should say something about the prophetic perspective (s) on what it means to live rightly before God?
Overall, I think that this is a book that those who already have a good knowledge of the OT and want to think in more detail about the spiritual issues it raises will want to buy and read. However, more work still remains to be done in this area, particularly at a more popular level.