Richard D. Phillips. Jonah & Micah. P & R Publishing, 2010. 432 pages.
Faithful exposition and application of the biblical text is foundational to the health of any local church. The Reformed Expository Commentary series strives to provide pastors, church leaders and teachers with biblically faithful exposition supported by fresh application. Richard Phillips is more than qualified and gifted to produce a volume about these minor prophets that stands in the long stream of the Reformed tradition: a tradition that is biblical, doctrinal, redemptive-historical and practical.
Jonah is about the amazing grace and mercy of God. Phillips says, “The book of Jonah challenges us to consider not only what it means to believe the gospel of grace, but also what it means to live the gospel of grace” (italics original). Jonah is an ideal companion along the adventure of learning about the massive depth of God’s grace.
The book of Micah, according to Phillips, gives shape to the Church’s challenge in our time. Though Israel faced the dark dual threats of neighboring nations and divine judgment, the bright light of gospel mercy shines through the promises of God. Though His people sin, God always responds to their repentance with matchless grace. “The God Micah presents to us truly is an incomparable God: sovereign, holy, and abounding in grace.”
This volume is helpful to pastors and bible teachers on a number of levels. First, Phillips is biblical. He walks through each book passage by passage and, though this volume is not intended to be exegetical, he does give careful attention to each text. When teaching about Nineveh’s repentance in Jonah 3:5-10, Phillips gives the immediate context of repentance, moves to what biblical repentance looks like in Jonah 3, and then gives a brief overview of repentance throughout the Bible. Second, Phillips provides a fine example of redemptive-historical interpretation of the Scriptures from a covenantal perspective. He shows where the text is pointing to Christ and how the Old Testament gives us examples of living by faith. Finally, each exposition, in one way or another, brings into focus the shining light of the gospel. Phillips does this in a way that never seems forced in his exposition or over-reaching in his interpretations.
There are a few areas of which potential readers should be aware. First, if you do not share Phillips’ covenantal presuppositions, you will not agree with all the interpretations advanced in these expositions. If you are aware of this, you will be able to read what is helpful and what does not fit within your understanding of the Bible. The series and this volume are “committed to the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments.” This volume did not give as much attention to biblical theology as deserved in some areas, but the editors and authors are up front about their doctrinal foundations and intentions.
Secondly, in his opening exposition in Jonah, Phillips says,
When most people think of Jonah, they think only of the famous fish that swallowed him. Their first question is, Did this really happen? Or, What kind of fish was it? But these questions are incidental to the book. Far more importantly, Jonah brings us face to face with such important issues such as God’s grace for the wicked, God’s sovereignty over his servants, and the intense human struggle involved with forgiveness and repentance.
Curious, I flipped to his exposition on Jonah 1:17. There he says, “It is important to defend the validity of the text. But for those who can accept that God performs miracles in our world, the more important point is the text’s meaning.” I understand what Phillips is getting at, which is to say that too many people get caught up with the great fish and wrongly focus on it rather than the God who is sovereign over it and over Jonah. What I do not fully understand is how these statements made it to print because I believe the historicity of the Bible is never “incidental”. Phillips rightly sees the danger that lurks when the focus is shifted from God, but Jonah did not believe the great fish to be incidental, nor did Jesus in Matthew 12. I commend Phillips’ attempt at trying to ward off liberal attacks on the “validity of the text” (65), but his plan of attack seems to be liberal itself and therefore falls well short. Instead of saying the reality of the fish is incidental to the message of Jonah, Phillips would have been standing firm in the stream of his own tradition if he had not gotten caught up in the reality of the fish, focusing rather on to the even more striking reality of who God is.
Finally, though this commentary is practical and has appropriate illustrations, many times that did not always mean I would be able to make the same points to my congregation or class. That does not mean I thought his points were off-base, but only that I believe the Bible is alive and active. A pastor will need to not take the easy route of using Phillips’ illustrations and applications, instead doing the hard work of wrestling with what God has to say through the books of Jonah and Micah to their local congregation.
Jonah & Micah is pastorally helpful, as it is a good example of biblical exposition and produces application points and questions that are faithful to the text. If you have a limited budget and can only afford a few resources for the books of Jonah and Micah, or you are not Reformed, you may choose to buy other more exegetical commentaries that will help you wrestle with the text for yourself and your own congregation. But if you are looking for a companion study volume that shows the massive grace and unceasing mercy of the sovereign God, Jonah & Micah would be a helpful resource on your shelf.