Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Book Review - The Beginning and End of Wisdom

I'm not a pastor. The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job is clearly a book aimed at, and written for, preachers. So why did I read it? I'll get to that, but let me start and tell you a bit about this fine book.

The book, written by Douglas Sean O'Donnell, is composed of three parts: sermons on passages of Scripture found in the Wisdom Literature, appendices, and some explanatory and introductory sections. I'll explain why I, a layperson, would read a book directed towards preachers when I look at the explanatory and introductory segments. First, however, let us consider the sermons.

The bulk of this book contains sermons, written out and adjusted for a book, that find their foundational Biblical passages in three books of wisdom; Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Specifically, the sermons come from the first and last chapters of those Old Testament books.

The first sermon focuses on Proverbs 1:1-7 and in considering the beginning of the book of Proverbs it naturally fixates on the beginning wisdom; the fear of the Lord. O'Donnell discusses the need for wisdom stating, “We all need wisdom. And not just wisdom in the massive decisions of life but in our everyday relationships with their moment-by-moment choices ... Thankfully, our gracious God has not left us to our own devices. He has given us ... the book of Proverbs” (35). From the need for wisdom he deftly moves into a compelling and original discussion on the fear of the Lord. From there he moves on to the ultimate teacher on and embodiment of wisdom, Jesus Christ. He finishes with an appeal for men and women to call out for Wisdom, to call out for Christ.

The second sermon is built on Proverbs 31:10-31, the famous passage of the 'excellent wife'. This sermon considers two questions “What should a man look for in a wife?” (48) and “How does a woman earn the praise of the world around her?” (57) The answer, gleaned from the Scripture verses under consideration; “He should look for someone who models the servanthood of Christ” (60) and she earns praise by “being a servant like Christ, by putting self last and others first” (60). O'Donnell weaves Christ into the sermon with ease. Focusing on wise counsel for men and women is good advice. Showing Jesus' glory in the process is good gospel.

Why Work?” is the title of the third sermon that is drawn from the pages of Ecclesiastes. The first 11 verses of this book presents us with, according to O'Donnel, vanity of work. Emphasizing Solomon's contention that in work there is nothing new and nothing remembered, he indicates the world's response to this idea; escapism, nihilism, and hedonism. Covering these philosophical positions in a manner that would be comfortable for all, O'Donnell shows that it takes “Gospel Glasses” to see that work is validated and valuable because of Christ. Jesus has even redeemed work: “Through Christ your work can be substantial and lasting” (76).

The fourth sermon, “Repining Restlessness”, engages the thirteenth and fourteenth verses of the last chapter in Ecclessiastes. Confronted by the vanity of worldly work, worldly wisdom, and worldly pleasures, O'Donnell presents a solution to these vanities claiming, “Fearing God and obeying his commands is God's solution, and as such it is the only solution that truly satisfies” (85). The motivations to overcoming these futile feelings, writes the author, are joy and judgement. O'Donnell quickly points to Christ who is both the true judge and true joy.

Moving to the book of Job, we read a sermon on verses 1 through 12 of the first chapter. O'Donnell offers three trials that we, like Job, will face: the test of losing possessions, the test of losing health and the test of loved ones turning against you. These trials are overcome by having three roots; knowledge that suffering can be good, trust in God's providence, and belief in the resurrection. The Christ-connection quickly becomes apparent as O'Donnell almost imperceptibly introduces Christ to the equation.

Finally, Job 42:1-17 is the fodder for sixth sermon. O'Donnell presents two of God's questions revealed in the text. Do the righteous ever suffer? Is God just if and when the righteous suffer? Through exposition of the passage, O'Donnell displays God's answer to both questions. Yes. This sermon is highlighted by a fascinating explanation of the wisdom presented by Job's friends. I never knew how I should consider their advice and admonitions. So much of what they said seemed right, and yet God was clearly displeased with their counsel. O'Donnell brings clarity to this sometimes confusing component of the Canon.

All said, the 6 sermons are wonderful examples of preaching from the wisdom literature. In the foreword, Sidney Greidanus sums them up well, “These six sermons are model sermons that will inspire and teach you how to preach Christ from Old Testament wisdom” (15). And this leads us to an earlier question. Namely, why would a layperson read a book on preaching from the Wisdom Literature of the Bible. The answer can be found by considering the introductory and explanatory sections of this book.

In the Preface, the author boldly and unabashedly declares what this book is about: “In short this is a book on what the Wisdom Literature is, why we should delight in it, and how we should preach it” (23) So, if you're wondering why non-preachers like you and I should read this book consider the first two suggestions O'Donnell makes for the content and purpose of his book. I want to know what the Wisdom Literature is and I want to delight in it. Perhaps I'll never preach from it, but as Meatloaf memorably sang, “Two out of three ain't bad.” And in light of those criteria, knowledge and delight, this book is a resounding success. I feel I understand the intricacies of this biblical genre better and I am relishing the opportunity to read them again. And should I so choose, I just my preach to myself from those books.

O'Donnell, Douglas Sean. The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011. Print.

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