True and Clear: A Call to Biblical Preaching

I took my first preaching class thirteen years ago: Sermon Preparation and Delivery with Dr. Michael Boys. Hundreds of sermons, lectures, and lessons later, the two pillars he established still stand tallest in my mind.

Pastor Boys taught us that accuracy and clarity are the most essential elements of biblical preaching. Accuracy is like air, clarity like water. Without air, people die immediately. Without water, they die eventually. Either way, they die.

So it is with God’s people. His Word is our manna (Deut 8:3; Matt 4:4), his truth our feast (Ps 1:2), and his will our food (John 4:34). We die without hearing the truth proclaimed with accuracy and clarity. Without accuracy, we die immediately. Without clarity, we die eventually. Either way, we die (Prov 29:18).

Preachers rightly have many concerns, and the kaleidoscope of categories can be overwhelming. Right interpretation, the sine qua non of biblical preaching, roots the tree: background and context, grammar and syntax, exegesis and theology. Without cutting the Word straight (2 Tim 2:15), accuracy is impossible and clarity irrelevant.

Homiletical elements then form the trunk and branches: structure and outline, introduction and conclusion, explanation and application. The preacher’s concerns, though, continue branching and leafing into matters of semantics and segues, stories and illustrations, timing and transitions. Miniscule veins and delicate buds appear in the soft artistries and developed instincts of pace, tone, and gestures, along with soul-touching images and mind-capturing metaphors.

Then there are the atmospheric concerns surrounding the preaching event: liturgy, song, seating, lighting, amplification, and a host of liturgical and spatial dynamics that affect the sermon. And we’re not even addressing those age-old homiletical questions every developing preacher must wrestle with. Preaching notes manuscripted or outlined? Delivery scripted or extemporaneous? Personality filtered or amplified? The thoughtful preacher, whether aspiring or established, can find himself exhausted navigating the labyrinth of expository concerns week after week.

But strip it down, boil it down, and apply the paint thinner of the final judgment to the glossy artifacts of oratory, and you’ll find (once again) these two essential and foundational elements of biblical preaching: accuracy and clarity. Speak the truth, and speak it clearly.

Of course, this requires rigorous interpretation and logical arrangement and enlightening illustrations and followable transitions. It requires laborious preparation and skillful execution. But healthy concerns over homiletical effectiveness should never bustle around the minister’s mind like bridesmaids taking over the wedding. Rather, these beautifying agents should be carefully prepared and positioned as handmaidens highlighting truth and clarity.

Yes, build effective scaffolding and structure—to uphold the truth. Yes, labor over your illustrations—for the sake of clarity. Yes, weave stories into your sermons—to capture the imagination with clearly proclaimed truth. Go ahead: Craft pithy proverbs and meaty maxims. Gesture with purpose and intonate with precision. Make your introduction compelling and your conclusion inescapable. Reach deep into the well of stories and illustrations, images and metaphors, proverbs and parables so you can reach deep into the psyche of your earthen, story-bound listeners. Do what you can, within biblical propriety, to capture our spastic attention spans.

But never forget that there’s a famine in the land, that people are starving, and that what emaciated pilgrims need most is not the Skittles of your best story but the true meat of God’s nourishing Word, sliced up with digestible clarity. Pressed in on every side, they need not the stained glass window of ornamented preaching but an unclouded view of divine truth.

Truth and clarity might not entertain, but the preacher’s responsibility is not to go viral on earth but to store up treasure in heaven. Readying souls to race well in this world and reach the next is the preacher’s calling and the sermon’s purpose. After all, there is more joy in heaven over one listener who repents than a hundred retweets that know no repentance.

So never let your capacity to be clever outrun your calling to be clear. Cleverness is a wonderful servant but a terrible master. When cleverness serves clarity, use it. But when cleverness stifles clarity, crucify it. The preacher’s job is not to paint the nail of truth but to drive it. So make your main goal and your heaviest burden this: to tell the truth, as clearly as you can.

This is biblical preaching: nails of truth, sharpened with clarity, driven by the Shepherd-builder of the church through a Spirit-anointed preacher. So until the new creation dawns and the church of Jesus Christ is saved to sin no more, this is the preacher’s calling, and these are his watchwords: true and clear.

A Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2 (42-89) by Allen Ross (Review)

Ross Psalms CommentaryA Commentary on the Psalms: Volume 2 (42-89) (Kregel Academic, 2013) is the second installment in Allen Ross‘s multi-volume commentary on the Psalter in the Kregel Exegetical Library series. Ross currently serves as Professor of Divinity in Old Testament at Beeson Divinity School.

This second volume covers Books II-III of the Psalter (42-89). Ross introduces each psalm with a fresh translation, notes on textual variants, suggestions regarding the psalm’s composition and historical context, and an exegetical overview which includes a one-sentence summary and a detailed outline. The commentary section is then organized by an expository outline with main points and sub-points, concluding briefly with a summary of the psalm’s overall message and its contemporary application.

Ross’s exposition is text-centered, insightful, and clear. He communicates insights from both the Hebrew and the logic of each psalm with clarity. In his translation notes, he often compares the Hebrew Masoretic Text with the Greek Septuagint, adding another layer of insight.

The main downside of the commentary is its failure to examine each psalm in context. The Psalms are strategically arranged, revealing both purposeful placement and a cohesive message. Evaluating shared terminology between psalms, complementary or contrasting themes, and the progression of psalms as you move through the Psalter — each of these methods can shed further light into the message not only of each psalm but also the entire Psalter.

The Burdened Life and the Weighty Word

The man who regularly speaks without a burden should stop speaking until he finds one. Or one finds him.

Until our lives have weight, our words will have none. And until we bear a burden, our lives will be weightless. Burdenless lives produce weightless words.

A man’s burden tells us who he is. It tells us what he cares about, why we should join him, and what it will cost us if we do.

Burdenless people meander. Their words meander, too, just like their lives. There’s nothing to say, but so much saying. Their words have no impact, because impact is proportional to weight.

But burden-bearers waste no steps, and waste no words. There’s no time, no energy for distractions. They’re locked in. You can’t chase fluff when you’re carrying weight. Then, when the weighted man makes contact, no matter his speed, there’s impact.

I remember a grizzly dorm leader from my college years. At competitions he would wear a black t-shirt with one sentence typed in white, all-caps: “I YELL BECAUSE I CARE.” He did, and he did. And I remember. Not that he yelled, but that he cared.

So bear a burden before you build a platform. The man on the highest platform weighs no more because of his height. But the man with a heavy burden weighs more because of his burden. Weight before height.

Humankind isn’t designed to be weightless. We’re meant to carry. Our planet has gravity. So have gravitas. Then, once you have some terrific gale hurricaning within you, some clawed idea slashing from within to get out, some burden pressing you down and pressing you out by sheer force, then by all means, speak, and people will listen. They may follow or mock or kill you, but they’ll listen. Not because you yelled but because you cared.

When God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law (Review)

When God Spoke GreekWhen God Spoke Greek: The Septuagint and the Making of the Christian Bible by Timothy Michael Law (Oxford University Press, 2013) is a narrative retelling of the rise and fall of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures.

I have chosen to limit my review to general impressions since (1) I am a novice when it comes to the Septuagint, (2) I disagree with many of Law’s conclusions and subtle implications, and (3) his arguments would need to be unpacked and addressed in detail for a fair treatment.


First, Law has succeeded in a rare and difficult task: providing a clear narrative retelling of the development of an ancient text. Of course, like anyone else, he is an interpreter of history rather than an objective observer, but Law presents a story where scholarly backbone and narrative flesh cohere. Second, Law exposes many anachronisms — contemporary definitions or categories that distort and reshape ancient realities. Though I disagree with some of his reconceptions, I always appreciate the exposure of misconceptions. Third, I was fascinated by chapters 12 and 13 covering Origin, Eusebius, Constantine, Jerome, and Augustine. Law’s interpretation of the personalities, developments, and debates that contributed to the decline of the Septuagint is colorfully and memorably told. Finally, Law convincingly demonstrates the central role the Septuagint played in the New Testament and the early church. The church’s understanding of Scripture is undernourished when the Septuagint is ignored or relegated to peripheral status. I hope Law would be encouraged to know that my desire to read the Septuagint, and to contemplate its texts when reading the NT, has increased exponentially.


First, Law tends to exaggerate. He is laboring to overturn popular conservative views of the development of the Bible, but he regularly speaks in extremes. Such exaggerations raise a veil of suspicion between author and reader. In some sections it seems that alternative evidence or interpretations have been curtained rather than presented, appreciated, and addressed. Of course, the absence of lengthy, nuanced argumentation keeps the book readable, which is one of its great strengths. I would simply prefer correction to overcorrection. Second, Law makes conservative points mostly by concession and rarely by emphasis. Even when he acknowledges or allows for a conservative conclusion, he typically stops at simple admission. Unfortunately, such an approach tends to damn with faint praise. Third, in his repeated efforts to emphasize textual and canonical developments that led to the concretization of what we now call “the Bible,” Law fails to appreciate adequately the canonical consciousness that appears to exist on the way to the canon (see John Meade’s review on this point). For example, Law writes, “Prior to the second century there was no way of knowing which scriptural books would be included within the collection and which would be left out; nor was there any way of knowing how the final version of the individual books would appear” (19; emphasis added). Simple logic, even without primary source evidence, would suggest that canonical leanings must have preceded canonical stances, just as wet concrete precedes a sidewalk.


I would like to have read the best introductions to the Septuagint before reading When God Spoke Greek, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone except the serious graduate-level student with some experience in the biblical languages, textual criticism, and higher-critical approaches. However, for those with solid exposure in these areas, When God Spoke Greek provides a clear though far-from-conservative interpretation of the story and value of the Septuagint. The pages of my Septuagint will certainly see more light because of When God Spoke Greek.

* Thanks to Oxford University Press for providing a free copy for unbiased review.

The Apostolic Fathers: Holmes’ Text and Wallace’s Lexicon (Review)

Apostolic Fathers (Holmes 3rd ed.)When evangelicalism turns to books, our functional motto is: “The newer, the truer.” We stir our hearts with fresh devotionals, hone our skills with modern ministry manuals, deepen our discernment with cultural exposés, and study our Bibles with contemporary commentaries. When it comes to the freshly published word, we have an embarrassment of riches.

But our functional fetish for fresh content also tends toward chronological snobbery. Certainly we’re no more snobbish than any other generation when it comes to preferring the present over the past, but that commonality leaves us in no less danger.

Enter the Apostolic Fathers, a traditional collection of ancient documents that serve as the “primary resource for the study of early Christianity, especially the postapostolic period (ca. AD 70-150). They provide significant and often unparalleled glimpses of and insights into the life of Christians and the Christian movement during a critical transitional stage in its history” (Holmes, Apostolic Fathers, 3).

This traditional collection is available in both Greek and English in The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations (3rd ed.) by Michael W. Holmes (Baker, 2007). Holmes serves as University Professor of Biblical Studies and Early Christianity at Bethel University in St. Paul, and his text is another updated edition of the original work of J. B. Lightfoot and J. R. Harmer (1891). In addition to a critical introduction and bibliography covering the Apostolic Fathers as a whole (3-31) and a critical introduction, background, and bibliography for each text, this slim and accessible volume includes the full Greek text and English translation of the following works:

First Clement
Second Clement

The Letters of Ignatius (7)
The Letter of Polycarp to the Philippians
The Martyrdom of Polycarp
The Didache
The Epistle of Barnabas
The Shepherd of Hermas
The Epistle to Diognetus and the Fragment of Quadratus
Fragments of Papias

Each individual work includes a text-critical apparatus beneath the Greek text (left pages) and scriptural cross-references and explanatory notes beneath the English translation (right pages). Editorial headings over English sections help the reader follow the context or quickly drop into sections for a quick view. Numerous indices create a treasure trove of referential information at the back of the book.

But regardless of the quality of Holmes’ edition, why should these writings matter to us today? Why should a Bible college or seminary student, much less a non-academic Christian, read or translate these ancient documents? It’s not just about their precise contents but also their proximity to the earliest church:

It was a time, for example [AD 70-150], when problems could no longer be solved by seeking an authoritative answer from an apostle. As a consequence, the church had to begin to deal with the question of sources of authority and authoritative tradition at a time when new challenges and pressures, both internal and external, were confronting the new religious movement in increasingly forceful terms . . . Clearly this was a crucial time in the history of a movement (3).

It is folly to navigate the rocks and reefs of contemporary challenges without any recourse to the ancient navigators who have gone before us. If there is nothing new under the sun, then the challenges faced and the lessons learned by the first few generations of post-apostolic Christians will offer us insights unbeholden to the intellectual prejudices of our present age. These religious ancestors have their own prejudices, to be sure, but they can still tell us things that no one in our age will tell us, because no one in our age can turn back the clock and see precisely how they saw.

Reader's Lexicon of the Apostolic FathersThankfully, for those wishing to translate these vital documents for themselves, Kregel has recently published A Reader’s Lexicon of the Apostolic Fathers (2013) assembled by Daniel Wallace, Brittany Burnette, and Terri Darby Moore. This sleek, intuitive, accessible lexicon follows the structure and text of Holmes’ Apostolic Fathers and provides glosses for every word that appears less than 30x in the Greek NT. Each verse lists its words in alphabetical order rather than the order the words appear in the verse, which takes a few minutes to get used to but actually ends up being more deeply intuitive and helpful. So you can read or reference the Apostolic Fathers in the original language (and thereby strengthen your Greek) without the kind of time commitment and lexical resources reserved for more vocational students. I’m not even a novice when it comes to the Apostolic Fathers (and I’ve been focusing on other areas in my academic studies), but I dropped into Holmes’ text and Wallace’s lexicon and was able to do basic translation right away. Even if I didn’t want to translate, I could just read through Holmes’ translation or survey the individual books to get a feel for their contents and flow.

With each passing year, I long to pursue the classics and ponder the ancients. I want to know the flow of history, to root myself in the best of tradition, to grasp those many worlds of past ages available to us through the most precious of resources — literature. I want to see through old lenses, to get a glimpse of how my ancestors saw, and therefore to see what’s now before me with that broad discernment that offers itself freely to the one who will free himself from the tyranny of the present.

Thanks to Baker Academic and Kregel Academic for providing free copies for unbiased review.

The Story Bible (Review)

The Story Bible

Teaching our children the Bible is the highest responsibility we have as Christian parents. This teaching involves love, shepherding, discipleship, and modeling, but it never involves less than reading the Scriptures.

Nothing can replace the reading and memorization of the normative English Bible. However, children’s story Bibles can be a helpful supplement for smaller children. The Story Bible (Concordia, 2011) offers two main contributions to this arena.

First, its 130 stories are not dramatically rewritten for children (like The Jesus Storybook Bible). Rather, the text of each story is pared down from the text of the English Standard Version so that children learn actual words and phrasing that they’ll later encounter in their full Bibles. The editors explain: “Because of our desire to present the biblical text faithfully, we sought to follow the biblical text and preserve rich wording and expressions in the Bible stories” (9).

Second, The Story Bible uses realistic illustrations rather than dramatized cartoon images in order to show children that the Bible’s characters and events are historical. Here’s how the editors make their case:

Appearance matters greatly to children. Researchers have found that children judge whether persons and events in visuals are real by how they appear. If a person or event appears unreal in a picture — such as a cartoon — children are likely to conclude that the person or event is unreal (9).

The Story Bible does not explicitly tie together the scriptural story like The Jesus Storybook Bible, though historical periods and large-scale redemptive moves are introduced by brief sections orienting the reader to the upcoming stories. Each story in The Story Bible is short, self-contained, and sounds like you’re reading your own full Bible. It’s necessary (as always) to provide interpretive commentary during or after the reading, especially because (with this version) the text hasn’t been rewritten in a dramatic way. But if God really breathed out this book through skilled messengers, and if this story (including the way it’s written) has always risen above all other books in the history of literature, then we ought to conclude that the way the Bible tells its story is precisely as dramatic as it ought to be.

The Story Bible isn’t the only helpful resource when it comes to children’s story Bibles, but its two main features of textual faithfulness and realistic illustrations indeed make a unique contribution to our ministry of teaching our children the story above all stories.

Thanks to Concordia for providing a free copy for unbiased review.

It’s Not Complicated: Kids Are Great

I have four kids, ages 6, 6, 7, and 8. They’re at the prime of kidness, and I love it. They’re also growing, though, and while I’m thrilled with their growth, I simultaneously bemoan it. My wife often reminds me that each stage of their lives will bring us joy. It’s a good reminder, and I know it’s true. It’s just that the joys of small children cannot be replicated.

Adulthood brings many gains. But it also brings some significant losses. Chief among them: imagination and sincerity.

So I have enjoyed AT&T’s fantastic ad campaign “It’s Not Complicated.” The ads highlight groups of four kids interacting with a straight-laced conversation-starter and answering his questions about “which is better”: bigger or smaller, faster or slower, more or less. The fanciful and precisely-logical (or not-quite-logical) discussion that ensues is entirely predictable (if you have kids) and entirely unpredictable (because they’re kids) all at the same time.

A few weeks ago I pondered aloud whether these commercials were scripted or improvised. I guessed improvised. They seem natural, and there are certain ideas that could only come from a kid’s brain. If you’ve had the same question, here’s your answer:

If you have kids, soak ’em up. Enjoy them. Talk to them. Listen to them. Play with them. Laugh with them. Hold them tight and look them in the eyes until they smile the best smile a human being ever smiles. It’s true: They’ll grow up to be bigger and smarter and more than they are now. But they’ll never be better. It’s not complicated: kids are great.

Get Weird

In 2014, get weird.

You know how you sometimes wonder if you’ll die having given your threescore and ten years to the status quo, having worried too much about being normal and accepted, having spent days and weeks and months looking laterally instead of vertically, having trusted your fears too much and your dreams too little?

Well, don’t. In 2014, get weird.

I mean, don’t get a poodle or a face tattoo or anything, but start asking why you exist and what’s really important and start living according to the best answers to those two questions.

Hey: You’re a free-standing moral agent with more ethical and creative and volitional horsepower under the hood than any other creature on the planet, and we all know when we really stop and think about it that ethical and creative and volitional horsepower are terrible things to waste.

Call it what you want: getting radical, stepping out of your comfort zone, abandoning the American Dream, taking the road less traveled, YOLO. Whatever. Just find something good and right and vital and get after it. And don’t just get after it the way everyone’s supposed to get after it, but actually get after it.

I mean, we belong to a species that puts members of its race on an orbiting moon. Maybe we could aim a tad higher than diet and exercise.

So in 2014, get weird.

“But what do you mean by weird?”

That’s the question, isn’t it?

What the OT Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible (Review)

What the OT Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus' BibleThe tree of the New Testament rises from the roots of the Old; the roots of the Old Testament break out in the tree of the New. The New Testament is nonsensical without the Old; and the Old Testament is unfulfilled and ultimately uninterpreted without the New.

Therefore, I’m grateful to Jason DeRouchie of Bethlehem College & Seminary for pulling together a team of impassioned believers, experienced teachers, and clear writers to illuminate the message of the Old Testament in What the Old Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Jesus’ Bible (Kregel, 2013).

Despite its bulky title, this multi-author work joins the top shelf of OT surveys. It offers a unified team unfolding the message and themes of each OT book in their canonical context. Its primary contribution: clarity.


DeRouchie begins with a full summary of the structure and message of the OT (26-59). He explains the storyline of the Bible with the acronym K.I.N.G.D.O.M., illustrating each movement with crisp, custom-made graphics (31).

Kickoff and Rebellion: Creation, fall, and flood
Instrument of Blessing: Patriarchs
Nation Redeemed and Restored: Exodus, Sinai, and wilderness
Government in the Promised Land: conquest and kingdoms (united, divided)
Dispersion and Return: Exile and initial restoration
Overlap of the Ages: Christ’s work and the church age
Mission Accomplished: Christ’s return and kingdom consummation

Rather than following the traditional English ordering of books, DeRouchie follows the original Hebrew ordering of Law, Prophets, and Writings. Before each of the three sections, he also provides a separate 5-10 page overview for that section. These introductory overviews help maintain the aerial view, keeping the overall storyline clear.

Each 10-20 page chapter then includes:

  • A single-page introduction to the biblical book answering the questions Who (author), When (date), Where (location of events/writing), and Why (purpose).
  • A carefully crafted list of the book’s themes which functions as a table of contents for the chapter since each list of themes forms the sub-headings for its chapter.
  • A clear, concise walk through the literary flow of the book.
  • Crisp and colorful photos, tables, charts, and images illustrating portions of the text being discussed.

I deeply appreciate how DeRouchie and team have honored our embodied, sensory humanity by engaging us not as disembodied brains only interested in text and logic but embodied beings best taught by a creative blend of proposition and illustration, statement and explanation, story and image.


DeRouchie joins the welcome renaissance of OT teachers following the three-part structure of the Hebrew Bible: Law, Prophets, and Writings. Rather than following the pragmatic ordering of contemporary English Bibles, this approach roots itself in the ancient soil of the canonical structure assumed by Jesus himself (Luke 24:44). The nutrients of this soil feed the reader in ways that contemporary arrangements simply cannot, and DeRouchie is careful to explain, defend, and promote the benefits of this arrangement using clear terms and clarifying charts.


Although the Hebrew Bible is a text, the OT narrative is an earthy account played out across the garden of Eden, the sands of Egypt, the hills of Canaan, and the rivers of Babylon. This survey honors the earthiness of the OT with almost 200 photos from the Pictorial Library of Bible Lands by Todd Bolen. Further, customized images, figures, charts, and outlines fill the book. Far from afterthoughts strewn through the book to break up the text, these are well-planned and well-executed illustrations that truly illuminate the points being made. Thoughtful pedagogical strategy permeates the book.


Proper order and colorful images can’t overcome poor writing. But DeRouchie and Kregel have overcome multiple challenges inherent in a multi-authored academic book by publishing a final product with a unified voice marked by clarity and consistency. Because the OT is already challenging to grasp, it’s especially important that authors not veil its message with dense communication.


To explore how DeRouchie and team treated debated issues in OT books, I thought up a sampling of interpretive debates and checked to see how much and what kind of attention each issue received: the age of the earth, the date of the Exodus, the ethics of Joshua’s conquest, the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s temple vision, the structure of the Psalter, and the interpretation of Song of Songs. Here’s what I found:

  • Stephen Dempster (Genesis) doesn’t discuss the age of the earth.
  • Kenneth Turner (Exodus) mentions the date of the Exodus in a short paragraph.
  • Boyd Seevers (Joshua) doesn’t address the ethics of Joshua’s conquest, though Jason DeRouchie provides a thorough two-page chart comparing “Judgment Wars of Annihilation” vs. “Judgment Wars of Defense and Subjugation” (182-83). The chart mentions that these wars have “nothing to do with racism, nationalism, or prejudice” (182).
  • Preston Sprinkle (Ezekiel) discusses the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s temple vision for a full page and clearly articulates his NT-informed view (268).
  • John Crutchfield (Psalms) briefly mentions the structure of the Psalter and notes that it demonstrates intentionality and a general movement from lament to praise (348-49).
  • Daniel Estes (Song of Songs) briefly mentions the debated allegorical interpretation of the Song of Songs, concluding simply that “most interpreters have come to understand [Song of Songs] to speak of human love” (393).

Clearly the authors don’t intend the book to include nuanced treatments of background issues or major interpretive debates within OT books. Rather, they minor on basic background facts and interpretive problems while majoring on the flow of each OT book in the context of the OT canon. Here and there I would have appreciated a text box or chart describing interpretive issues, like Preston Sprinkle’s explanation of Ezekiel’s eschatological temple. However, one benefit of avoiding these discussions is that each chapter stays the course by unfolding the message of each OT book without distraction.


Unfortunately, the title of the book is unwieldy and a bit misleading. First, what does “really cared about” mean? Is it emphasizing authorial intent, introducing Christocentric interpretation, or separating the book from some unnamed mainstream of OT interpretation? Second, the term “Jesus’ Bible” may not be clear to those who don’t think in terms of chronology and canon. A brief comment in the introduction seems to acknowledge the unfortunate title.

This survey’s title is drawn from the companion New Testament volume — What the New Testament Authors Really Cared About: A Survey of Their Writings (Kregel, 2008) — and was set before the Old Testament project even began. A positive aspect of this title is its stress on authorial intent as the basis of meaning — a conviction held to by all contributors in this volume (14).

Despite its title, Jason DeRouchie has put together a properly ordered, clearly written, vibrantly illustrated, pedagogically savvy, theologically impassioned retelling of the OT story. Its crystal-clarity sets it apart and will make it useful for pastors, teachers, and students, as well as any Christian desiring to learn more about the Scriptures which Jesus used, and which he came to fulfill.

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Thanks to Kregel for providing a free copy for unbiased review.

Give Me the Scenic Route: Intellectual Curiosity vs. Intellectual Cul-de-Sacs

If you want to be a scholar, you have to know your field. The seminal works, the major contributions, the game-changing periods, the ebb and flow of dialogue throughout the decades or centuries or millennia. You have to join the conversation.

There’s one potential problem with this (well, more than one, but only one I’m going to talk about here). Embed yourself too deeply in the field and saturate yourself too exclusively in the literature and you’ll find that your questions, categories, and curiosity are controlled.

Now, I’m not trumpeting naïveté and bombasting knowledge. The benefits of being well-read and well-informed far outweigh the alternatives.

But what if the accepted categories are one too many or two too few? What if the tightly drawn lines should actually be blurred? What if the common antitheses, or the four major views, or the six accepted premises are distorted?

Might the two antitheses have points of harmony and reconciliation?

Could it be that none of the four major views best accounts for the evidence or best answers the problems?

Might we find, upon further and deeper and out-of-the-box inspection, that most of the six accepted premises hold little water?

What if we’re getting diluted answers because we’re polluting the questions?

This isn’t a spirit-of-the-age, question-everything rant. I want to read well and widely, know my chosen fields, and engage in the great dialogues of the ages. But I want to be careful, and part of being careful means pulling back the curtains, poking at the premises, and questioning the questions.

There’s nothing new under the sun, but there are plenty of scholarly field-stones hiding gems of insight from generations of young explorers. We’re told, whether by rank-and-file scholarship or the unspoken rules of the guild or our own fear-bound intuition, to step on these proven stones to reach knowledge. But every so often — quite often, actually — we should tip them up and dig around a bit before continuing to trod dutifully down the well-trodden path. It might just be that the treasure’s been trampled by the footpath and drowned out by the footnotes.

I don’t want to be original, if originality means insatiable inventiveness or intellectual independence or chronological snobbery. But if truth and life are as dazzlingly deep and as dancingly complex as the Bible and my soul are telling me, then this whole shebang should be one great adventure.

I want to drive the open road of inquiry and the scenic route of exploration, not just circle the cul-de-sac of concrete categories and controlled questions.

And ultimately, against all postmodern sensibilities, I want the aerial view. Seeking it, with perpetual humility and relentless effort, is the long path that rises toward wisdom.

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Revised from “Controlling the Questions: Circular Scholarship and the Cul-de-Sac of Inquiry,” originally posted on March 22, 2012.

Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian by Bret Lott (Review)

Letters and Life (Lott)Bret Lott is a writer, he’s a creative writer, and he’s a creative Christian writer. I don’t think he would write a normal review — summary, strengths, and interaction. That would be the easy route. That would, in terms of its category, “borrow from the vast steaming pile of clichés we always have ready at hand” (50). And who wants to do that?

There’s one big idea I’ll take away from Lott’s semi-autobiographical Letters and Life (Crossway, 2013). It appears on page 47, under the banner for chapter 3: “On Precision.” It’s not even Lott’s words, or Lott’s story. But he uses it throughout the chapter, and I’ll never forget it. Lott begins:

Here’s a quote I keep taped to the wall above my desk, which is to say it is an important one, one of my favorites, and one that helps me when I write. It’s from a memoir piece the poet Phil Levine wrote that appeared in the journal Ploughshares a few years ago. It’s about his having been a student in one of those legendary workshops at Iowa, this one taught by none other than John Berryman, that madman prophet whose lips were touched by the searing coal of poetry. Levine writes that one day Berryman gave the assembled young writers the following monumentally inspiring and intensely intimidating exhortation: “You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise, you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere because that’s always easiest.”

I don’t remember exactly what I thought when I first read those last two sentences. But I know I stopped. I stopped because I had just been taken somewhere I’d never been taken before. I’d read a real idea, put into real writing.

Because here’s the thing: In writing we’re not just trying to circle the same property, crest the same hill, ford the same river. Writing is a pioneer activity, a mission impossible of the mind. The best writers take us places we’ve not been because we didn’t have the words to get there, and they got there (and took us with them) because they launched themselves into the journey even when they didn’t have the words, either. No one has the words until they have them. And then, there they are, and a new world comes into being.

Of course, it’s rarely that simple. Rarely do the right words just happen upon us like surprise sunsets. Most often we fight for them. We fight to win them from the ever-thickening web of synthetic constraints that dim the glory of the written word. We fight to liberate them from our incessant lackadaisy — or else our overweaning pride and overbearing cleverness. Either way, it’s most often a fight.

Precision calls for patience, it calls for searching; it calls for striving; it also calls for letting yourself trip over what is right there in the path before you. Precision is indispensable; it is just beyond your reach. You don’t have the technique, the language, or the courage to achieve precision. But if you want to write, then for all these reasons — and chiefly because we serve a precise God who is creator of all things — you must reach for precision. As a writer you must always be striving for that which you cannot yet achieve and for that which you cannot yet know (62).

So what will it mean for me to write for the rest of my life? Many things, but never less than this: “trying to write a poem I’m unable to write, a poem I lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve.” Then, though it may be a literary bloodbath to get there, I’ll get somewhere I’ve not gotten before. And perhaps take someone with me.

Thanks to Crossway for providing a free copy for unbiased review.

Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Review)

Psalms as Torah (Wenham)How are you shaped ethically? What experiences nuance your beliefs and behaviors? What factors determine your rights and wrongs, creating your categories of good, bad, and ugly?

I am convinced that everything we experience shapes us. What we see, what we hear, what we feel — everything. Human beings are a startling blend of two powerful dynamics: we’re ethically wired, and we’re moldable.

In Psalms as Torah: Reading Biblical Song Ethically (Baker Academic, 2012), seasoned OT scholar Gordon Wenham explores the ethical shaping power of the Psalms. He concludes that what we say, pray, and sing profoundly influences who we are and who we become.


In the first half (chs. 1-4), Wenham surveys Jewish and Christian use of the Psalter through the centuries (ch. 1) along with scholarship’s recent emphasis on the form and function of individual psalms (ch. 2). Wenham prefers the more recent canonical approach, interpreting the psalms not only as individual works but also as a structured anthology demonstrating interrelationships and progression. He proposes that ancient religious texts (including the Psalter) were crafted for memorization and recitation (ch. 3), and then delves into speech act theory (the heart of the book) to show how the act of praying is inherently committal and therefore shapes us at a deep level (ch. 4).

In the second half (chs. 5-10), Wenham turns to the actual ethics of the Psalter including its explicit ethical instruction (chs. 5, 6), the effect of its narrative retellings (ch. 7), the virtues and vices it prescribes and denounces (ch. 8), the knotty issue of imprecatory prayers (ch. 9), and the various ways the NT reflects the ethics of the Psalms (ch. 10).

The Burden of the Book: The Shaping Power of Praying the Psalms

Christians often talk about “the power of prayer,” and rightfully so. But what’s usually meant is the power of prayer to change things by summoning the sovereign power of God. This book is all about the power of prayer, but Wenham is taking a different angle. He wants us to see that prayer not only reshapes the landscape of our lives by moving mountains but reshapes the landscape of our hearts by recrafting and renewing our attitudes and commitments.

[P]rayer has an impact on ethical thought . . . If we praise a certain type of behavior in our prayers, we are telling God that this is how we intend to behave. On the other hand, if in prayer we denounce certain acts and pray for God to punish them, we are in effect inviting God to judge us if we do the same. This makes the ethics of liturgy uniquely powerful. It makes a stronger claim on the believer than either law, wisdom, or story, which are simply subject to passive reception: one can listen to a proverb or a story and then take it or leave it, but if you pray ethically, you commit yourself to a path of action (57).

Therefore, it’s not enough for the church to retell the narratives, preach the gospels, and exposit the epistles. We must also pray the Psalms, individually and corporately.

From yet another angle, yet another Christian leader is calling for the church to weave the reading, reciting, praying, and singing of the Psalms back into its corporate life. But for Wenham, the issue at stake is not just the performance of biblical worship but the formation of biblical character. The Psalms are meant not just to punctuate the Sunday service but to permeate the souls of the saints. Most churches barely do the former. How can we even begin to enjoy the latter?

If the Psalms are God-crafted instruments for our shaping, then neglecting them will necessarily leave us misshapen. Thankfully, Gordon Wenham has added his voice to the burgeoning chorus calling for the reinstatement of the Psalms in the church’s worship. May God raise the chorus to a crescendo so that we might rejoin the harmony of the Psalter and all the benefits it brings.

Thanks to Baker Academic for providing a free copy for unbiased review.

The Case for the Psalms by N. T. Wright (Review)

The Case for the PsalmsThe Psalms are the pulse of the saints. The Psalter expresses the peaks and valleys of God’s people throughout the centuries, mapping the landscape of our lives and echoing the rhythm of our hearts. What would Christians do without the Psalms?

The Psalter is the only God-breathed hymnbook, and it’s as magisterial as we might expect a God-breathed hymnbook to be. In The Case for the Psalms: Why They Are Essential (HarperCollins, 2013), eminent NT scholar N. T. Wright joins a welcome chorus of church leaders calling for the reestablishment of this sacred songbook at the center of the church’s worship.

This book is a personal plea. The Psalms, which make up the great hymnbook at the heart of the Bible, have been the daily lifeblood of Christians, and of course the Jewish people, from the earliest times. Yet in many Christian circles today, the Psalms are simply not used. And in many places where they are still used, whether said or sung, they are often reduced to a few verses to be recited as “filler” between other parts of the liturgy or worship services. In the latter case, people often don’t seem to realize what they’re singing. In the former case, they don’t seem to realize what they’re missing. This book is an attempt to reverse those trends. I see this as an urgent task (p. 1).

Recovering the Psalter and Its Worldview

Why is recovering the Psalter an urgent task for the church? Wright’s explanation is surprising but ultimately rewarding, as he rests his plea on three worldview pillars: (1) time, (2) space, and (3) matter. The psalmists’ inspired perspective on these three deeply human realities carry transformative power, as they teach us how God’s time and our time intersect, how God graciously rejoins human space by bringing heaven back to earth, and how matter itself (starting with us) is being recrafted into the new world for which the psalmists hope.

The Psalms, then, are a crossroads within the great story of Israel. Here God’s mighty acts of redemption (past) electrify the saints’ imagination (present) as we anticipate his coming deliverance (future). Here we are invited into Israel’s temple to meet Israel’s God on his sacred Mount Zion as heaven meets earth. And here, through psalmic worship, we ourselves are transformed into the worshipers whom God is recrafting to fit the coming new creation in which righteousness dwells.

The Story of the Psalter

The threefold lens through which Wright views the Psalter is at once surprising and opaque, innovative and rewarding. His connections, along with their merits and takeaways, are not immediately or entirely clear. Nevertheless, there’s an admirable depth that repays careful reflection.

I wish that Wright had applied his careful narrative eye and masterful narrative mind to the fascinating contemporary discussions about the structure of the Psalter, but he explicitly moves in a different direction (8). Nevertheless, he sees in the Psalms the story of Israel’s Messiah, and in her Messiah, the story of Israel herself:

Part of the strange work of the Psalms is to draw the terror and shame of all the ages together to a point where it becomes intense and unbearable, turning itself into a great scream of pain, the pain of Israel, the pain of Adam and Eve, the pain that shouts out, in the most paradoxical act of worship, to ask why God has abandoned it. And then of course the Psalms tell the story of strange vindication, of dramatic reversal, of wondrous rescue, comfort, and restoration (32).

After all, the Psalms are more than just the pulse of the saints. The Psalms are the poem-story of Israel and her Messiah. Each individual psalm is like a single star in the heavens — shining bright, giving light, evoking awe over its solitary majesty. But together, the Psalms are much more. Together, the Psalms are a 150-star constellation, a heavenly tapestry recounting Israel’s story and refreshing Israel’s hope. To read, pray, and sing them is to read the story afresh, to pray the story down, and to sing ourselves into the story until it inhabits our hearts and we inhabit its hope.

Thanks to HarperCollins for providing a free copy for unbiased review.

A Mind Awake

A mind is a terrible thing to waste. It’s been said that the intellectual life, or the thinking life, is nothing more than a mind awake. And who in their right mind could bear to live as a mind asleep?

To think is one of the highest privileges humanity possesses. Made in God’s image to rule righteously, graciously, and wisely over his world, mankind was granted mental faculties that defy the most imaginative technological advances and the most stunning human innovations. In fact, our mental faculties produce both the technological advances that have been made along with the imaginations that dream up future advances.

But the mind is not just a mechanistic, functional tool for innovation. It is a magisterial organism brimming with life, vitality, creativity, and ten thousand more qualities that could not be explained were they not experienced every day in the sheer ecstasy of thinking.

Historian Mark Noll has not offered too severe a judgment when he says that the scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is no evangelical mind. We have exchanged the lush rainforest of thought for the grainy desert of mindlessness. We have realized far too little and far too late that ceasing to think means ceasing to live. Yes, there is far more to life than thinking, but there is never less. Yes, there is far more to human flourishing than intellect, but where intellect is possible and not pursued, the decay of death follows swiftly behind.

Thinking deeply and well is a high act of worship, and one of the most noble activities in which a human being can engage.

So, your days may be long and your burdens heavy; your tasks may seem mundane and the status quo inescapable. It may seem as though the ceiling’s the limit, the sky’s out of reach, and the job at hand is simply to do the job at hand. But if you want to recover, in your everyday functioning, the high and noble calling of humanity, then you can start afresh with this: Think. Think about anything. Think about everything. Because anything, rightly thought about, is worth thinking about. And you can’t rightly think about it until you think about it.

So think, and think again, and think some more. And interweave your thinking with doing, and singing, and creating, and eating, and befriending, and conversing, and living. But in all you do, whatever you do, think. Think, and be human again.

Singing in the Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God’s Kingdom by Michael Barber (Review)

Singing in the ReignThe Hebrew Scriptures are adorned and haunted by their crown jewel — the Psalter. The Psalms fathom the depths of evil, suffering, and betrayal, and scale the heights of devotion, deliverance, and steadfast love. Through the centuries, Jews and Christians have turned to the Psalter both as individuals and communities to lament, repent, question, declare, and praise. The Psalms are a hymnbook for the soul, in any season.

But what exactly is the Psalter, and how should it be read? Virtually everyone reads each psalm individually, without regard for its neighbors or its context or the overall message of the book. Like Proverbs, which is usually read as a random assortment of de-contextualized wisdom sayings, the Psalms are almost exclusively read as individual poems and songs meant for various seasons of the soul. We’re ashamed of our sins, so we turn to Psalm 51. We’re down in the dumps, so we ponder Psalm 42. We’re afraid or insecure, so we recite Psalm 23.

In Singing in the Reign: The Psalms and the Liturgy of God’s Kingdom (Emmaus Road, 2001), Catholic professor Michael Barber joins a growing chorus of scholars who both affirm the Psalms’ precious role as individual songs and see a purposeful arrangement in the one hundred and fifty psalms. He traces interwoven themes running through the five books of the Psalms (Book I: 1-41 | Book II: 42-72 | Book III: 73-89 | Book IV: 90-106 | Book V: 107-150), highlights textual connections between each psalm and its neighbors, and shows how the Psalter has been structured to tell a story.

If this is true, we must not simply feast on the Psalter like a buffet line while missing its arrangement as a masterful seven-course meal. Cherry-picking from the Psalms without recognizing its purposeful structure and unified story narrows our joy rather than broadening it. Barber suggests a deeper way to read the Psalms:

The Book of Psalms must be read at three levels. First, each of the psalms must be read as individual prayers, which stand on their own, apart from their context. Second, many of these psalms may be understood as composed for some specific historical context . . . Finally, the psalms gain new meaning as they are placed in the larger context of the Psalter.”

By the unfailing guidance of God the Holy Spirit, Hebrew anthologists crafted the Psalter by selecting and arranging one hundred and fifty poetic masterpieces previously composed by theological artisans — prophet, priest, and king — spanning centuries of God’s steadfast love to his people. Most Christians, after a fresh look at the Psalms and a little pondering, would agree with that description.

But what exactly is the “larger context” of the Psalter that gives each psalm a broader meaning? What are the five books of Psalms, viewed as a whole, trying to tell us? What is the story of the Psalter? Without addressing the Catholic issues in the book or leveling the critiques involved in most book reviews, I close with a summary of Barber’s proposed structure of the Psalter (with which I substantially agree).

Book I (1-41) is filled with psalms of David, the young shepherd whom God promised a messianic descendant who would rule over an everlasting kingdom. Books II (42-72) and III (73-89) trace the rise and fall of David’s kingdom, experienced by the entire community of God’s people. At the end of Book III (Ps 89), the line of David fails as Israel goes into exile. Book IV declares that Yahweh is king, splashing the canvas with Mosaic and Exodus themes as exiled Israel anticipates the New Exodus promised by the prophets. Finally, the structure of Book V evokes restoration from exile leading to the restoration of the Davidic kingdom and culminating in the unbridled celebration of Psalms 146-150.

So, we may ask again, what is the Psalter?

The Psalter is a carefully crafted post-exilic anthology with a narrative structure reflecting Israel’s historical hope for the restoration of the Davidic kingdom whose establishment would consummate the purposes and promises embedded in God’s previous covenants with Adam, Abraham, and Israel.

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Thanks to Emmaus Road Publishing for providing a free copy for unbiased review.

The Jesus Storybook Bible Deluxe Edition (Review)

Jesus Storybook Bible Deluxe EditionWith four children ages 5-7, I care deeply about children’s Bibles. If the Bible is the sacred book we believe it is, then the selection of stories, their emphases and implications, the language and tone, the artwork — everything matters.

The tagline of the popular Jesus Storybook Bible (ZonderKidz, 2009) reads: “Every story whispers his name.” In the introduction (“The Story and the Song”), author Sally Lloyd-Jones gently corrects two common misconceptions — that the Bible is mainly a book of rules and a book of heroes. Throughout her retelling, she strives to steer clear of moralism and hero worship by spotlighting human need and pointing to the singular Hero.

Whispering His Name

The main strength of The Jesus Storybook Bible (TJSB) is just this: putting Christ at the center of the story (and the stories). All 44 stories highlight the gracious, pursuant love of God as God’s people await and then celebrate the Savior sent for our redemption.

Mature Bible readers know that the biblical story points toward and culminates in Jesus Christ. But discerning how each story points to Jesus is more complex. Nevertheless, without overcomplicating the connections, at the end of each story Lloyd-Jones turns toward God’s redemptive plan culminating in Christ. As the failed builders depart the Tower of Babel, she writes, “People could never reach up to Heaven, so Heaven would have to come down to them” (54). As Goliath lays prone at the feet of young David, she concludes, “Many years later, God would send his people another young Hero to fight for them. And to save them” (129). After Daniel’s lions are stilled, she predicts, “God would keep on rescuing his people. And the time was coming when God would send another brave Hero, like Daniel, who would love God and do what God said — whatever it cost him, even if it meant he would die” (159). The moral of each story is basically the same: not what we should do but what God has done (14); not our imitation of a human hero but Christ’s coming salvation.

Whenever I read to my children from TJSB, I am struck by its Christ-centeredness. Throughout the OT stories, I find myself waiting. None of the stories are satisfactory, and though God is clearly working, the unresolved problem remains. The ultimate human need is unmet, and we find ourselves waiting for the Savior and Rescuer who kindly hovers over the end of each mini-story. We are shown our great need, and promised that grace and help is on the way — in the form of a person. Ultimately, what could be more important for our children to understand than this?

What Is Sin?

TJSB stresses human inability. Lloyd-Jones labors to drive home our need of grace, a welcome emphasis for Christian families who (rightly) teach our children things like first-time obedience and healthy biblical morals. However, one of my concerns with Jones’ retelling is her almost exclusive presentation of sin as sickness and brokenness. She doesn’t talk much in terms of disobedience, rebellion, or divine retribution. Sin is sickness or running away from God or having a heart that doesn’t work properly, so what we need is God’s healing and his loving pursuit. These definitions are absolutely true, but they’re insufficient if we don’t also talk about our willing and eager disobedience to God’s commands. Parents will need to be careful to supplement (without correcting) this incomplete (but not incorrect) perspective on sin.

Moralism and Morality

TJSB also steers far clear of “moralism,” but it’s important to remember that the danger lies in the -ism, not the morality itself. One of the limitations of this particular story Bible is the general absence of moral teaching. Of course, its rich flavor of grace and gospel is refreshing after the bland taste of the many simplistic children’s Bibles focused on drawing out ethical principles from every narrative. However, I have always disagreed with those who suggest that a legitimate redemptive-historical hermeneutic must downplay the clear practical lessons we learn from the Bible’s many-layered stories — lessons about morals, ethics, choices, consequences, wisdom, and obedience. As for TJSB, I don’t see its lack of ethical teaching as a problem. I’m only making the obvious and all-important observation that no children’s Bible is the actual Bible, and some story Bibles (like this one) purposefully take one particular angle on the biblical stories, an approach that necessarily leaves other angles unexplored.

Limited Story Selection

One reason why it’s important to use a variety of children’s Bibles is their inherent limitations when it comes to story selection. TJSB contains 44 stories — 21 OT and 23 NT. Most of the NT stories (19½) are from the gospels, and only 3½ are drawn from Acts through Revelation. So, for example, the rich theology and ethical implications of Paul’s many letters are left unexplored, when it’s precisely these letters that flesh out just how the story of Israel has climaxed in the work of Jesus and his Spirit and his church. This lack is not the author’s fault but rather a limitation inherent to the genre itself (and to Lloyd-Jones’ credit, she often crafts mini-stories that include a psalm or a prophecy or a letter which help children sense the original medium in which certain truths were given).


I deeply appreciate The Jesus Storybook Bible. So far, I’ve read it to my children more than any other children’s Bible (though we’ve used several). In all 44 stories, it calls us to see our need and turn to Christ. Of course, with its powerful focus come limitations. But all children’s Bibles have them. Therefore, I continually remind myself that it’s my privilege and responsibility to teach my children God’s truth. It’s not ultimately the job of a Sunday School teacher, a Bible class teacher, a VBS volunteer, or a story Bible. These are all valuable supplements, but the main course must be my life and my words.

* Thanks to ZonderKids for providing a copy of the beautiful Deluxe Edition for review. The best part of this special edition is its audio CDs read by David Suchet, an award-winning actor with wonderful narrative cadence and a delightful British accent (of course). You can listen to the audio samples at the book’s official website.