Dale Ralph Davis. The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach Old Testament Narrative Texts. United Kingdom: Christian Focus, 2006. 160 pp. $16.99.
As the full title suggests, The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach Old Testament Narrative Texts is a book about preaching. However, in the first sentence, author Dale Ralph Davis tells his readers,
This book was not my idea. I’m leery of saying too much about preaching.
Well then, I’m sure glad someone else had the idea for the book, because—reluctant to speak about preaching or not—Davis certainly has much wisdom to offer.
He’s eminently qualified for the task, having steeped in these passages for dozens of years and publishing commentaries on Joshua through 2 Kings. Moreover, he’s spent time as both professor (Reformed Theological Seminary) and pastor (most recently at Woodland Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi).
Warm, Devotional, and Spunky
Early in the book, Davis writes, “If what I study won’t preach, there is something wrong with the way I study what I study” (p. 7). In other words, the upshot of observation done properly is devotional warmth and personal application. If you read enough books on theology, however, you’ll know this often does not prove true. Yet as Davis mined the biblical text, his observations certainly are.
Davis’s comments are also filled with spunk. For example, when describing the fire that Elijah called down from Heaven in 2 Kings 1, he writes that “servants of the state” were reduced to “puddles of carbon” (p. 62). That’s a poetically tenacious way to put it.
Additionally, he offers many contemporary illustrations that serve as bridges between our world and the world of the ancient text. In one place, Davis tells of a Chicago Cubs baseball player who insisted that his wife mock him whenever he was up to bat by crying, “You big bum! You can’t hit!” (p. 6-7). Davis follows with this comment:
Now biblical preaching is a bit like that. We need to hear some loving mockery behind us, crying, “So what? What difference does all this study make for anyone?” If we are constantly “berated” that way, it will make us far better interpreters.
Finally, throughout the book, Davis refreshed my belief that it is the rigorous exegesis of a passage—that is, the careful attention to how an author describes who God is and what he is doing among his people—that fuels the engaging sermon. The affections are not stirred by the light and casual skimming of Bible passages so that the preacher can find a place here and a place there from which to leap into other comments. No, good preaching is expository; it explains the text. Or said differently, Davis reminds us that in good preaching, the Bible functions not as the diving board (what you use to leap into other things), but rather the deep end of the pool (what you swim in).
A Book of Best Practices, Not “Hot” Tips
We live in a world that promises quick fixes and easy solutions. That’s not what Davis does in this book; he offers what people call in other industries “best practices,” those tried and true methods that have proven to be the most effective—not easy, but effective.
For example, on page 123 Davis demonstrates two ways to outline a passage: one that smothers preaching and another that fuels it. He uses 1 Samuel 16:1-13 as the case study. First, he writes that you could outline the passage in this way:
I. Samuel comes to Bethlehem, vv. 1-5
II. Samuel’s wrong move, vv. 6-7
III. An embarrassing moment, vv. 8-11
IV. David arrives, vv. 12-13
It’s an outline that’s faithful to the passage, sure, but, in the end, doesn’t generate much of a sermon: “some guy did this, and then some guy did that.” This outline won’t preach because “it’s not telling us what Yahweh is doing.”
Davis encourages us, rather, to consider centering our outlines on what God is doing. Imagine, instead, that our breakdown of 1 Samuel 16 goes like this:
I. The God who provides for his kingdom, v. 1
II. The God who stoops to our fears, vv. 2-5a
III. The God who prevents our folly, vv. 5b-7
IV. The God who reverses our conventions, vv. 8-13
Now we’re getting somewhere. Now we do not simply have “some guy” on the move but some God. That’ll preach.
Two Places That “More” Would Have Been More
As much as I loved the book, let me offer two improvements, which, in a way, I hope will only be received as backhanded compliments—like a man who enjoyed the meal so much that he complained he couldn’t get seconds because the food was all gone.
The first improvement is that the book needs a Scripture Index for future referencing. Throughout, I found the exegesis so rich and instructive that I could imagine myself returning to the book each time I preached an OT narrative just to see if Davis touched on my passage. Without an index, however, all his exegetical trees disappear in the forest. Sure, many of his comments are likely in his specific commentaries, but in the Preface he tells readers directly that he tried to use OT passages not covered in his commentaries in order to not double up (p. ii). I’m sure I’ll re-read this book again in the future to have my preaching juices stirred, but the periodic use as a reference book won’t happen, and that’s a shame.
The second improvement would be if Davis gave readers a fuller discussion of, and justification for, what he calls a “theocentric” approach to preaching. By theocentric approach, he means, I gather, that he doesn’t believe every preached OT passage needs to become explicitly Christocentric, that is, each sermon does not need to explicitly culminate its focus on Jesus Christ. Davis is not opposed to being Christocentric, of course; he just doesn’t believe every passage or sermon requires it.
His discussion of this topic comes at the very end of the book in a short section titled “Addendum (can be skipped).” But Davis’s theocentric approach shouldn’t surprise careful readers; by the time he addresses it directly, he’s already spent 100+ pages demonstrating it.
This review is not the place to outline all of the issues involved with a “theocentric vs. Christocentric” debate, but preachers, and even mature Christians, should already be aware that the extent to which one sees—and how one sees—Jesus Christ in the OT is a huge and sometimes thorny topic.
In fact, I have a book on my shelf that’s devoted exclusively to this topic—the topic of knowing Jesus through the OT—and in the Preface, the author, who is a seasoned and accomplished scholar, likens the experience of writing about Jesus in the OT to a soldier doing an army-crawl on his belly while live rounds fly overhead. In other words, it’s a precarious endeavor.
But let me be clear: I’m not desiring more from Davis on this topic because it’s the polemics that excite me. Not at all. I’m a practitioner, a vocational gospel preacher. Thus, several times a week I find myself telling others, “This is what this verse means, and this is how we come to know the grace of God in this passage.” And very often, “this verse” is in the OT, and very often, I wish I had more confidence in the correct “move” from the OT to the Gospel. If Davis had offered us more on this topic, I certainly would have been helped.
Despite these criticisms, perhaps the highest compliment I could pay Davis would be to say that, as I read The Word Became Fresh, I felt both instructed as a preacher, and refreshed as a reader of the Word.
* * *
A Few Favorite Quotes
“We are guilty of arrogance, not merely neglect, when we fail to beg for the Spirit’s help in the study of Scripture… We may have a high view of the Bible… Yet in our own Scripture work we easily ignore its chief Interpreter. Professionalism rather than piety drives us. We needn’t be surprised at our sterility and poverty if we refuse to be beggars for the Spirit’s help.” (Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh, 1-2)
“We tend to get irritated if God doesn’t fit our notions of what he ought to be. We don’t, truth be told, want some God we have to fear. Which is to say, we don’t want the real God.” (Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh, 65, emphasis original)
“Don’t be afraid to wade into the nasty narratives of the Old Testament, for it’s in the nasty stuff you’ll find the God of scary holiness and incredible grace waiting to reveal himself.” (Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh, 74)