The Beginning and End of Wisdom
O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2011. 222 pp. including endnotes. Paperback, $17.99. ISBN-13: 978-1-4335-2334-2
Doug O’Donnell is one gifted guy. Not yet forty years old, he’s already the author of two books, including the one under review, and is currently working on a commentary on Ecclesiastes. That is no small achievement. In addition, he’s the busy pastor of a church in Illinois as well as a husband and father of a growing family. And from reading his work, it’s clear that he’s exceptionally well-educated as well as being a man of spiritual passion and deep commitment to Christ. These qualities lend themselves to a depth of knowledge not often found in people who haven’t yet hit middle age.
In The Beginning and End of Wisdom O’Donnell provides us with a very readable and genuinely enjoyable seminar on how to preach the books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. For a wide variety of reasons, there hasn’t been a lot done in the field of homiletics with these books and that makes O’Donnell’s contribution all the more valuable. He does a terrific job of taking selected portions of the Wisdom literature on their own terms, dissecting the meaning of his chosen text and showing how to preach it in an engaging and relevant manner. Unlike many preaching books that begin with a discussion of method and then provide (maybe) a sermonic example or two, O’Donnell begins with six fine sermons and concludes with a chapter on how to preach Wisdom literature. He supplements all this with two very useful appendices that address a) how to preach Hebrew poetry and b) some suggested sermon series out of the Wisdom Literature. And as someone who is philosophically committed to a Christo-centric model of preaching ala` Sidney Greidanus, Tim Keller, and Bryan Chapell, O’Donnell ties every sermon to the person and work of Christ.
This is a fine book that makes a valuable contribution to the field of homiletics and I would encourage students and other preachers who read The Denver Journal to ‘taste and enjoy’ it. O’Donnell is an exceptionally gifted writer whose wit and wisdom shine forth throughout the book, making it an enjoyable read, not something that can always be said about books on preaching. In addition, it’s obvious from the footnotes that he has done his homework and therefore speaks with a great deal of expertise when it comes to the Wisdom literature. While these texts often appear to be a barrier to good preaching, O’Donnell demonstrates with clarity, enthusiasm and style how they can be leveraged for the spiritual benefit of 21st century congregations.
Having noted how well crafted this book is, as well as its many strengths, I have some bones to pick with the author. The first has to do with his endnotes and bibliography. Nowhere does he reference Haddon Robinson’s classic Biblical Preaching. I realize that O’Donnell is oriented towards another homiletical model but given that Robinson’s book was recently listed by Preaching Journal as the best text on preaching over the past 25 years, I honestly don’t know how you can write on the subject without engaging it. In light of the fact that O’Donnell is such a highly skilled researcher and writer, this oversight appears intentional and mystifyingly so.
Second, while I know that he and his fellow Christo-centric preachers think that every sermon must in some way or another end up at Jesus, I beg to differ for a number of reasons. For starters, their methodology hinges on the conversation that Jesus had with the two disciples on the road to Emmaus as recorded in Luke 24:13-35. The key verse seems to be 17 where Luke notes that ‘…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.’ It seems obvious even to the casual reader that Jesus walked them thru certain passages of the Old Testament that pointed to Him as the Messiah. But did Christ go thru every text in the Old Testament, however large or small, and say ‘See, here I AM!’? The very fact that the walk itself only took a couple of hours seems to mitigate against reading such a view into that spiritually significant but relatively short conversation.
Another objection I have is that while this methodology appears to glorify Christ, it contains some implicit weaknesses biblically, exegetically, and practically. Because this is a book review, not a review article, I don’t have the time and space to go into all the theological and homiletical reasons behind this specific concern. I would, however, like to direct readers to two other sources that address this issue in an intelligent way. The first is a review article by noted Old Testament scholar and preacher, Walter Kaiser (‘Must Every Lesson or Sermon Focus on Jesus Christ?’ http://www.christianity.com/pastors/11596060/). The second is a paper that was given by Dr. Ken Langley at the 2008 meeting of the Evangelical Homiletics Society (http://www.ehomiletics.com/papers/08/Langley.pdf). Both of these demonstrate in some detail why every biblical sermon needs to be textually centered and exegetically accurate without necessarily ending up at Christ.
A final objection to this methodology is that most preachers are simply not as competent in pulling it off as O’Donnell. Given his humility, he would surely object to my observation. But I’ve been teaching preaching now for over twenty-five years and I know from experience that it’s enough of a challenge to get people to preach the Bible in a clear and relevant manner without adding on an extra and supposedly ‘more spiritual’ approach. Yes, there are times and texts that require the sermon to be utterly Christo-centric. But, in my opinion, this emphasis of O’Donnell and those of the Greidanus school of preaching becomes, over the long haul, something of a methodological mountain to climb. If we buy in, then we’re committed to making every text and every sermon focus on Christ. Personally, I think that’s a burden few preachers can bear week after week without becoming intellectually dishonest with both the texts they’re studying and the sermons they’re preaching.
Having articulated my points of disagreement and concern let me return to the positive. The Beginning and End of Wisdom is a fine book with a good deal of value for anyone interested in preaching this specific section of the Old Testament. I’m thankful that Doug O’Donnell has chosen to share his research, ideas, and sermons with us. I know that I’ll come back to his work time and again for some fresh insights on how to work thru some of these important but challenging passages of Scripture. And having now tasted of his talent, I can’t wait for the publication of his commentary on Ecclesiastes. I’m confident that, like The Beginning and End of Wisdom, it will reflect the author’s gifting as well as his passion for helping people understand both who God is and how He’s going about the gracious work of redemption.
Scott Wenig, Ph.D.
Professor of Applied Theology