Book Review of Douglas O’Donnell’s “The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job”

O’Donnell, D.S. 2011. The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Crossway: Wheaton, IL

Thanks to Crossway for this review copy; now to the review. Pastor Douglas O’Donnell serves at New Covenant Church in IL, which is a church plant from College Church in Wheaton, IL. As a side note, College Church has successfully planted a handful of churches which are diverse and hardly monolithic. You will find PCA ministers, like O’Donnell, serving in a couple of the churches (Holy Trinity in Chicago and New Covenant Church in Naperville), as well as another church residing in the Acts 29 network (Hope Fellowship in Lombard, IL). I just couldn’t resist noting my admiration for the ministry of Kent Hughes at College Church and how they have served the broader Kingdom in these church plants.

As for the book, it certainly helps fill a growing demand for Christo-centric homiletics and hermeneutics. First of all, this growing awareness of Christ-centered preaching is something to be celebrated in the church. It has long been a Reformed distinctive and it’s about time that the broader Evangelical world take notice of what I would consider to be the necessary task of preaching Christ from all of Scripture. O’Donnell offers 6 sermons, 2 each for Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Each sermon is substantive; containing strong grounding in redemptive history, useful illustrations, discernible outlines, but most importantly, Christ.

The most useful content for me personally was found in his concluding chapter, titled “How Shall Wisdom be Preached?”. This is really a “how to” chapter jam-packed full of useful “tips” on how to faithfully preach Christ from what we call Wisdom literature. His first tip, “Gospel Ethics”, instructs preachers to not preach Christ in a “narrow” sense where singular attributes are emphasized to the point of negating others. O’Donnell cites specifically the Reformed tendency to preach Christ and his crucifixion with a singular emphasis on what was done for us to the point of obscuring the implications of Christ’s resurrection for our sanctification. Of course there are is much preaching that emphasizes sanctification to the neglect of what Christ actually did accomplish on our behalf. O’Donnell suggests that we preach Christ in a holistic fashion, emphasizing the implications for our salvation and our ethics. O’Donnell sums up his point well (2011:123),

Christ-centered sermons should promote the Great Commission’s commission – “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”.

The second tip, “Gospel Types”, encourages careful use of “typology”. I have seen typology on steroids in some sermons that is overly creative to the point of making more of obscure narrative details than the main point – so one certainly needs to be careful in this area. O’Donnell is aware of such challenges (2011:127),

Again, this is not an easy skill to develop. It takes time, hard work, spiritual illumination, and thus prayer. But it is the kind of skill that is necessary if we are to honor God and to preach Christ in the colors that only the Wisdom literature adds to the picture of his radiance.

The third tip, “Gospel Teaching”, is described as follows (2011:127),

The idea is this: if we can’t get to Christ through a fulfillment scheme or a typological connection, perhaps there is something Jesus taught that can (a) summarize, and/or (b) shed further light on a wisdom text. The tip is related to the notion that Jesus is the supreme Wisdom Teacher, in both person and method.

O’Donnell provides some helpful charts on how to apply this principle of “Gospel Teaching” that will aid the curious reader. He is certainly not recommending that we reduce sermons to nice moralisms, but is affirming that the gospel is good news for how we live and that preachers should make thematic connections from Wisdom literature to the words of Christ.

The fourth tip, “Gospel Illustrations”, advocates making indirect connections to Jesus when there lacks a direct connection. An account from the Gospels or instruction from the epistles can illustrate a point made from Wisdom literature. This seems to me the most difficult tip in that it will require a pretty broad and deep saturation in all of Scripture. One needs to have a subject index of sorts in the hard drive of their brain to make illustrations that are relevant and not out of left field.

The fifth tip, “Gospel Awe”, encourages the preacher to believe the message in such a way to establish ethos with the hearers in a way that brings exultation to Christ (think John Piper). The preacher must do more than make nice analytical and theoretical connections, he must exult in Christ. This requires a Godly piety. O’Donnell says (2011:137),

There is a necessary ethos to preaching the Wisdom literature of the Bible. That’s what I’m getting at in this final point. When tempted to sin, I often repeat to myself two truths: holiness brings happiness, and purity brings power.

O’Donnell also offers a couple helpful appendixes: “Preaching Hebrew Poetry” and “Book Summaries and Suggested Sermon Series”. This concludes a book that I think is a worthy contribution to the discipline of homiletics with the specific application of preaching Christ from the Wisdom literature of Scripture. I would recommend this book to be included as required/recommended reading for Bible College/Seminary courses on the Wisdom Literature and/or Hermeneutics/Homiletics. A serious layman will also find this book helpful if he were seeking a deeper application of Christ from the Wisdom books in the Bible.

© 2011, Rick Hogaboam. All rights reserved.

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