With the publication of Lamentations, the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary continues to be on the cutting edge of scholarship. I recently had the privilege of interviewing Dr. Abner Chou, who is not only the author of the volume on Lamentations but also one of my good friends. Dr. Chou is Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at The Master’s College and Seminary. He has been involved in research for commentaries, books, and journal articles, and he has contributed papers to the Evangelical Theological Society. Abner is also a member of both the Evangelical Theological Society and the Society of Biblical Literature.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Abner. Before we get into specifics, can you tell our readers a little about yourself? Where do you teach, where were you educated, etc.?
I currently teach at the Master’s College in the biblical studies department. TMC is in California, but I did not grow up on the west coast. I grew up in the Midwest around St. Louis, Missouri. I was raised in a Christian home, went to AWANA, and did all of the typical church activities. In junior high and high school I was really convicted to examine and study the Word. Upon doing so, I realized that although previously I had thought the Bible to be shallow and boring, it really was sophisticated and profound. That led to my motto of “never again.” Never again would I allow someone on my watch to believe that the Word of God (or the God of the Word) was insignificant or unengaging. So I went to the Master’s College for my undergraduate studies in biblical languages and exposition, and in God’s providence I never left. I began teaching different classes (e.g., biblical languages and Bible survey classes) nearly right after I graduated from college, and I earned my ThD from Master’s Seminary, specializing in how the New Testament uses the Old.
What compelled you to write a commentary on Lamentations?
Technically, the OT editor did! Dr. Barrick, my doctoral advisor, asked if I would be interested in writing a commentary on Lamentations. I had done some initial work in studying the book for the classes I teach, as well as for my dissertation. However, I think what motivates me the most to study any book of the Bible is the delight of discovery. I am confident that every part of God’s Word is profound and incredible, and I look forward to seeing the rich truths in a book that I have not studied thoroughly. So I think you could ask me to write on any book of the Bible, and if I had time, I would say “yes” just to learn and enjoy the Word of God and the God of the Word.
What was your process like when you sat down to write? That is, how did you approach not only the writing of the commentary but also preparing yourself spiritually to comment on the text?
For me, writing a commentary and studying Scripture share a significant amount of overlap. Particularly, one must balance the tension of understanding the text in all its intricacies while making sure those intricacies definitively shape one’s life. So when I sit down to write a commentary (on Lamentations), I am contemplating the issues of historical background, textual criticism, genre, discourse structure, poetic structure, argument of the book, the various layers of context, syntax, and lexical issues; and at the same time, I am endeavoring to put all of that together so I can understand not only what the author said but also the range of intended implications and applications of the text. I compare this endeavor to cooking—we have all the ingredients, but seeing how the text balances all of these elements and then tasting and enjoying them is the job of a Christian exegete.
So for a practical process, I begin with prayer, confessing sin and asking that I would listen carefully to the text and depend on the Lord for wisdom in understanding and communicating his Word. Then I begin to research that particular passage and verse, and I engage in all the technical areas of study. I type up notes (or write them on a piece of paper or keep them in my head). When I have gathered a host of information, I then think. I contemplate how all the information regarding the texts comes together to deliver the author’s contextual point. I contemplate how his point plays out in redemptive history. I contemplate how the author’s intent would impact the reader originally and the reader today. At this point, I may diagram it on a white board and pray through it. After this, I think about how to organize it for the commentary. What should I put down in the comment for this verse? How do I communicate the various factors involved so as to enhance the author’s message? What should I save for a devotional thought? What should I not put in because it is not as helpful or more personally beneficially, as opposed to being beneficial for the reader? What should I reserve for the discussion on biblical theology?
I suppose the key to writing a commentary is to always remember that we are handling God’s Word. That accountability drives our care with the text (2 Tim. 2:15) and our care to live it (James 1:23).
Did you find any passages particularly challenging?
A variety of passages contain technical and theological challenges. For example, how does the author use the perfect verbs in Lamentations 3:52-66? And what is the author precisely saying and not saying in Lamentations 5:7? Seeing the intertextuality of Lamentations in the OT and NT was really fascinating, especially the way it draws on messianic psalms that describe our Lord’s death (cf. Lam. 2:15-16; Ps. 22:7, 13; Matt. 27:19). So a lot is happening in this book!
Nevertheless, I think the biggest challenge was understanding how the book fit together as a whole. I suspect many know that Lamentations contains five chapters—the first four are an acrostic, and the final chapter is patterned after the Hebrew alphabet. The acrostic structure helps to unify a given chapter, but scholars have also rightly observed that it also provides parallelism across chapters. For example, compare 1:20 and 2:20, and see the similarities between the two verses. Also, numerous parallels exist between chapters 1 and 5 as well as chapters 2 and 4. Piecing together these layers of parallelisms and identifying its significance were great challenges. However, the benefits are tremendous. I often read commentaries that said, “This verse just communicates more suffering.” It almost made Lamentations seem like a book that was a jumbled mess of ramblings on pain. Conversely, understanding the structure on a macro level allows you to see the contours of the book.
The author talks about grief, but he does so in important and nuanced ways that are organized and communicate a coherent and distinctive message. For instance, the parallels between chapters 2 and 4 are significant. They not only bring out similarities but also differences. In 2:14, the poet records that the prophets saw false visions, but in 4:13, he labels this as sin. The shift may be subtle to the modern reader, but it is substantial. We can observe suffering around us, but we must also confess sin. Lamentations moves from grieving over suffering and hurt (and there is an important place for that) to embracing responsibility for our sin through repentance. This hinges on chapter 3 and the great loving-kindness of our God. In this way, the book is a big chiasm, and understanding how the book fits together on a macro level allows us to see the significance of the poet’s discussion on suffering. Certain verses may sound the same, but they are purposed for different (albeit complementary) ends.
The book walks us through the various aspects of pain in exile, on a societal and corporate level, as well as within our relationship with God. It shows that such pain will be transformed because of God’s great faithfulness in making all things new, a reality linked with the new covenant mentioned in Jeremiah. Hence, the book shows how to acknowledge suffering in this time, but it also shows the entire scope of God’s plan, which provides hope.
Who were you closet friends (i.e. commentaries) while you were writing?
House (Word Biblical Commentary), Parry (Two Horizons), Berlin (Old Testament Library), Hillers (Anchor) Bergant (Apollos Old Testament Commentary), Renkema, Dobbs-Allsopp, Provan (New Century Bible), and Longman (New International Bible Commentary).
What need do you see your Lamentations commentary filling within academia and the church?
When I began the research on Lamentations, I was surprised to find that academia had commented on the book quite extensively. They particularly focused on the poetry, genre criticism, and ethical (suffering) issues. In addition, you have commentaries with a variety of strengths and weaknesses. Some commentaries are incredibly detailed, but you feel lost in the trees of the forest. Others give you a good feel for the forest, but you wonder why the trees then even mattered. While all of this discussion was taking place, other scholars (like Barry in NSBT) began to broach the issue of Lamentations in biblical theology. A lot of important individual connections between Lamentations and the suffering of believers, Paul’s ministry, and even our Lord’s death on the cross exist. Interestingly enough, independent of this biblical theological discussion, we can observe how other scholars have made great strides in showing the redemptive historical storyline of Scripture and the matter of exile in particular.
So all of these factors set up a need, both in academia and in the church. We needed a commentary that could show the flow of the poetry in Lamentations while also showing scholars and pastors the uniqueness of each line of poetry and how each line uniquely contributes to that flow. We needed a commentary that could synthesize the plethora of scholarly research and show how it can enhance our exegesis and theology of Lamentations. We needed a commentary that could situate the role of Lamentations in biblical theology, to make a case for how the church can legitimately live out its message. My hope is that my commentary will help to synthesize the flow and detail of the book, show its role in biblical theology, and explain its practicality in a variety of unique ways. I hope even my comments above illustrate my endeavor to show how Lamentations—on a variety of levels—sets forth a theology of how we fundamentally understand, respond to, and live in exile, which was set in motion in 586 B.C. but continues in our day as well (cf. 1 Pet. 1:1; 2:11).
What are you currently working on these days?
I am recovering from a busy year of writing. In addition to the Lamentations commentary, I wrote a book, I Saw the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Vision (Wipf and Stock), which deals with the visions of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Paul, and John. I also wrote a book on hermeneutics, exploring the hermeneutics of the prophets and the apostles with a view to seeing what we can learn from them (The Prophetic, Apostolic, and Christian Hermeneutic, Kregel). I also edited a book with the TMC faculty on the issue of Genesis 3 and Adam (What Really Happened in the Garden, Kregel). In the midst of this recovery, I am gearing up to write a chapter on intertextuality and inerrancy, and I am also thinking through several book ideas, including a reexamination of typology, a book on Job, and a book on how biblical theology can show us the significance and importance behind what we do as believers in everyday life. Of course, I am also preparing for classes and spending some time with the family.
Add Dr. Chou’s volume on Lamentations—along with the rest of the Evangelical Exegetical Commentary—to your library today!