O’Donnell, Douglas Sean. The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job. Wheaton: Crossway, 2011. 235 pp. $17.99, pb. Link to Crossway

The plan of this book is to help the reader “build a fire” by helping them to know and enjoy Wisdom literature. More importantly, O’Donnell wants to show the reader “how to build the fire” by giving them some tools for reading Wisdom literature. What makes this book different than most short books of Wisdom Literature is that O’Donnell specifically wants to read this material through the lens of Jesus and the Cross. He wants the reader to “put on Gospel glasses and look at this text” in order to preach Christocentiric sermons on Job, Proverbs, and Ecclesiastes. In order to do this, he provides six sermons based on the beginning and end of the three Wisdom books. After these illustration sermons, he offers a chapter describing his Christological method for reading Wisdom.

What O’Donnell does not do in his sermons is exegesis of the text. By this I mean that there is little reflection on the meaning of words or the context of the ancient world. In his sermon on the opening section of Ecclesiastes, his title is “Why Work?” and the content of the sermon is on the importance of working hard for the at righteousness. He looks at work through “Gospel Glasses” and examines Jesus work doing the will of the father, then draws a line to his audience, urging them also to do the will of the father. I find this style of sermons as more or less thematic, based on some theme in the text, but in the end totally unconnected with the text read at the beginning of the sermon.

In his last chapter, O’Donnell shares several tips for preaching Christ in Wisdom literature. He recommends that the preacher not draw a straight line from the Old Testament to some ethical / moral teaching for his congregation. Rather, a Christocentric preacher will draw the line from the Old Testament, through Christ, and then to an ethical command for his congregation.

How is this to be done? O’Donnell recommends a judicious use of typology. For example, his sermon on Job 42 focuses on the sufferings of Job as a type of the sufferings of Jesus. “What Isaiah foretold, Job illustrated and Jesus embodied.” (125). I think that this style of typology is not particularly helpful if my goal is presenting what Bible actually says. There is nothing at all in Job 42 or in the later use of Job’s story that makes me think that this typological analysis is valid. In fact, I find it scarcely better than allegorizing the text. O’Donnell does not want to allegorize the Old Testament, and claims that this typological study is not allegory. I cannot see the difference. He does state that typology is “not an easy skill,” it takes time, hard work, and spiritual illumination (127).

I find this characterization intimidating since it implies that my resistence to typology is the result of non-illumination, even if it is the result of hard work and time spent in the text. The Holy Spirit may very well illuminate a pastor who takes the time to exegete a text and reflect on historical, cultural, and literary contexts in order to apply the text to his congregation. I think that a sermon on a section of Proverbs, for example, does not have to jump from the text of the Hebrew Bible to Jesus in order to be valuable for a Christian congregation. I certainly do not think that this is necessary for Job or Ecclesiastes. This is where I seriously differ with O’Donnell, I am after the original intention of the author. The application of a text ought to be drawn from that text. By using“gospel glasses” in parts of the Bible which are not expressly Christological, I think the meaning of the text suffers.

I found his appendix on reading Hebrew poetry well written and helpful, although he is standing on the foundation of Robert Alter. He provides a nice introduction to the forms of Hebrew poetry and gives some good advice on dealing with biblical imagery. For example, he urges his readers to not overanalyze imagery, allowing the fluid language of the text to be evocative and moving. I think that this section could be enhanced by taking into consideration the use (and abuse) of metaphors in poetry, but there is still much here that will help a preacher to better approach the poetry of the Hebrew Bible.

This was not the book I expected it to be when I began reading it. Rather than a short introduction to Wisdom Literature, it is book about how to preach Wisdom Literature with a decidedly Christ-centered approach. I think that O’Donnell achieves that goal, I just wonder if that goal is the right one for the pastor who preaches from Wisdom Literature.