Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Book Review: Five festal garments

I mentioned a few days ago that this is a delightful book and I couldn’t be more correct. Being one who for the longest time have been reading but not finishing, completing this book in just two sittings says a lot about it. It was so engaging that I just kept on at it.

Barry G. Webb gives short commentaries, which he so humbly refers to as reflections, on five Old Testament books, traditionally known simply as “The Scrolls”. He calls them the five garments:
  • the Garment of Love (The Song of Songs)
  • the Garment of Kindness (Ruth)
  • the Garment of Suffering (Lamentations)
  • the Garment of Vexation (Ecclesiastes)
  • the Garment of Deliverance (Esther)
In his commentary, he gave a summary of the structure of the books, reflected on their contribution to the Old Testament, its place in the Jewish liturgy, and its importance to the Christian canon, reflecting on its place in the New Testament.

The Garment of Love (The Song of Songs)
The Song of Songs has always mesmerised me. As you would have expected, I just could not make out what it means exactly and why it is there in the canon of Scripture. According to Webb, the book is about the nature of love itself. He touches the topic of marriage and sex, of pure love. I have never dared to read that in the book, being in the Scriptures and all but Webb does give quite a convincing summary of that theme. The Song of Songs he says is to “stop love going out of our relationships, with God and with one another … It is a splendid garment, to be worn not with awkwardness and embarrassment, but festively, with joy and deep thankfulness to him who gave it to us as Holy Scripture.”

The Garment of Kindness (Ruth)
I have always loved reading Ruth. It is a romantic account of how an alien was accepted into the family and more than that, became part of salvation history. As much as she has a place in the story of God’s salvation for his chosen people, we have a place in it too through Christ by whom we are adopted. “Ruth is a gentle book … so gentle that we are first beguiled into thinking of it as heartwarming and reassuring …but if kindness is its theme, it is kindness of a radical and controversial sort; a kindness that makes ripples … Ruth is, supremely, the scroll of kindness … to be worn festively, in celebration of the kindness that has been shown to us. But it is also to be worn quietly, with awe and humility, for to put on kindness is to clothe ourselves with the very character of God himself.”

The Garment of Suffering (Lamentations)
I have not really studied Lamentations more than just giving it a read through. But I know that in the midst of all the intense grief and lament, its gems are in the very heart of the book. Lamentations in its 5 poems is a work in the form of an ordered grief. The mind of a person in grief is unorderly, moving around in circles. The poems written acrostically, the first and last two with 22 verses and the third with 66, provide a shape to the grief it bears, giving it more than an aesthetic value but also a therapeutic and pastoral significance. It is a book about suffering, but not suffering in general. It is a deserved suffering, within the covenant, because of sin, divine anger and righteous judgement. “It is a dark and heavy garment, but with gold worked in it; a penitential robe, terrible and glorious. It is a garment for sinners to wear as they make their way, trembling yet hopeful to the cross of Christ.”

The Garment of Vexation (Ecclesiastes)
I have mentioned here before that Ecclesiastes in one of my most favourite book in the bible. My current theme in life is taken from 12:13. Webb says, “Ecclesiastes is perhaps the most enigmatic book in the Old Testament. Like the desert Sphinx, it teases us with questions, yield its secrets only grudgingly, and will not allow us the luxury of easy answers. In other words, it is thoroughly irritating, but at the same time almost mesmeric in its appeal. It draws us towards it by mirroring the perplexity we all feel as we grapple with life.” Oh how I love those words, well worded and well put. Its motto (1:2) being “all is hebel: breath,vapour, mist, vanity,what is transient, ephemeral, profitless” is responded with an epilogue (12:13) where “the end of the matter, all has been heard: fear God, keep his commandments, this is the essence of being human”. “Ecclesiastes is a garment to wear when we have finished with performance and are ready for work – not with an inflated idea of what we can achieve, but with contentment and confidence, knowing that our times are in God’s hands. A pair of overalls, perhaps. A garment for those who are through, once for all, with triumphalism and cant, and are willing to face life as it really is.”

The Garment of Deliverance (Esther)
The book of Esther has been for me Sunday School lessons and Bible Quiz material. Therefore, reading Webb’s reflection about it gave me new light and understanding of the book, as he highlights various points in the narrative, explained its place in the Jewish liturgy and its place in the Old and New Testament. I have always known that this book is about the only book in the Bible which does not have any explicit reference to God. I have never really thought of that much until I was halfway reading when I realised how similar our situations are to Esther. She functioned in a world alien to the Jews, she was in foreign land. Throughout the book however, God is silently working. We, in the same way, are in foreign land. Our religion and our piety are seen as an intrusion to the lives of people outside the body of Christ, with whom we do spend a lot of time with. We find it hard to speak the language of our belief and hard to act in the way that God expects us to. Nonetheless, in the silence of our world, as in the silence in the world of Esther, God is still at work. My thoughts were confirmed as Webb discusses exactly the same thing at the end of the chapter. “The book of Esther is indeed a festive garment, a garment to put on when we are astonished, once again at some unexpected way God has rescued us, and when we are ready to celebrate. But it is also a garment to put on when the forces arrayed against us seemed all-powerful, when to laugh is only way to stay sane. To put this garment on however, is not to whistle in the dark, or to pretend that things are other than they are. It is to clothe ourselves with the truth that God is sovereign, and to be reminded that he is always with us, even when he seems most absent, and that nothing can ultimately thwart his purposes. To put on Esther is to affirm that God is our deliverer, and to share in the laughter of heaven.”

This is definitely a read-again book for me!



  1. "It is to clothe ourselves with the truth that God is sovereign, and to be reminded that he is always with us, even when he seems most absent, and that nothing can ultimately thwart his purposes. To put on Esther is to affirm that God is our deliverer, and to share in the laughter of heaven.”

    WOW - thanks so much Pearlie for posting and sharing this. I just trust I have put on my "overalls" as I submit to my God and His plans & purposes for my life.

  2. Hi Susan,
    I am happy that my post is a blessing to you. The bible is so rich with imageries and pictures for us to draw nearer to God. He knows us through and through.

  3. I love this book review and am going to write it down as a book to read. I must admit my favorite book is the Book of Ruth!

    She is amazing and I love her so much for her example that she sets!!

    I am so happy that I came over to visit today!