Reviewing Wisdom (Part 1): O’Dowd on O’Donnell on Wisdom

Douglas Sean O’Donnell, The Beginning and End of Wisdom: Preaching Christ from the First and Last Chapters of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job (Crossway, 2011). Reviewed by Ryan Patrick O’Dowd.

[[See the series introduction here.]]

In his introduction to this book, Sidney Greidanus admonishes the church for its failure to read and preach Old Testament wisdom literature.  Greidanus shows that when the biblical sources churches use to equip God’s saints are inadequate, the health of the church suffers.  Douglas O’Donnell’s book is a creative and engaging introduction to these lost texts and a much needed book for a church long deprived of biblical wisdom.

After a short introduction, O’Donnell provides six sermons on the first and last chapters of each wisdom book. These sermons are followed by a chapter on hermeneutics and homiletics and two appendices that help preachers to preach wisdom and poetry.  O’Donnell’s aim is twofold: one, to inspire love for the wisdom literature, and two, to motivate and guide preachers towards preaching good sermons from these books.  I have written two reviews in order to comment on both goals.  In the next review I will point to elements in O’Donnell’s methodology which demonstrate that the church’s struggle to preach wisdom literature today goes beyond the genre or our theological method.  This first review examines the content of O’Donnell’s sermons.

O’Donnell’s sermons on Proverbs emphasize moral application.  He shows that wisdom is interested in giving us a particular guide for day-to-day life in the world, inspiring us to be grateful for the gift of wisdom.  O’Donnell explains that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, meaning that true wisdom can only be had if we start in the right place and aim in the right direction – an obedient faith in the covenant God who is the source of all wisdom.

The argument is clear and persuasive in this chapter, though I would have taken the discussion a bit further.  Because O’Donnell views wisdom almost entirely within the categories of salvation and morality, he does not address the way wisdom speaks to vocational and cultural issues like aesthetics, architecture, education and politics.  Note, for example, the wisdom Bezalel had in building the tabernacle (Exod 31) – wisdom of skill that knows the material properties of God’s world.  Joseph and Daniel are given wisdom to govern and to interpret dreams and Solomon’s wisdom applies to a range of tasks from administering justice to building the Temple.

When O’Donnell comes to his next sermon on the valiant woman in Proverbs 31, he again focuses on her moral and spiritual character.  But Proverbs 31 also provides lengthy illustrations of her accomplishments in agriculture, commerce, parenting, textiles, and social justice.  O’Donnell generically calls these her “industrious work,” referring briefly to Ruth and Boaz as people of character like the Valiant Woman and Woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8.  But he doesn’t explore these connections.  Had he done so, he might have opened up the way back to Woman Wisdom in Proverbs 8, who saw all the events of creation. Wisdom affirms the goodness of all the human vocations in this world, not just being a good wife.

O’Donnell preaches with an explicit indebtedness to the tradition of Reformed theology and so I was surprised that he did not make use of the excellent Proverbs scholarship by Raymond Van Leeuwen and Al Wolters.  Not only do they share his Reformed heritage, but both show how Reformers like Luther, Calvin, Brenz and Melanchthon all saw the wisdom literature celebrating God’s whole creation, and with it, every dimension of human activity in the world.

O’Donnell’s two chapters on Ecclesiastes describe what he calls “the futility of our work in this world,” warning us that our work adds nothing new to this world unless it is “in the Lord.”  In other words, work is futile but can be redeemed in Jesus the Messiah.

This raises important questions: how do Christians in a fallen world balance the message of the futility of work with the goodness of work imagined in Proverbs 31?  And what does it mean for Jesus to redeem work?  The sermons don’t tackle these questions and I suspect that all pastors struggle to connect the physical resurrection of Jesus’ body with its specific application to our life in this world today.  In Colossians Paul tells us that Jesus’ resurrection begins the process of reconciling everything in the heavens and the earth.  He then prays for God to give his church wisdom so that we can bring the power of his resurrection to the world (compare Phil 3).  Simply put, wisdom is our guide to embody his renewing grace, peace, forgiveness and healing in all the broken places of the world: offices, schools, banks, hospitals, studios, and homes.  But we must first link wisdom to creation for this wisdom message in Colossians to make sense.

In his sermons on Job, O’Donnell avoids the common error of moralizing Job’s story and concluding that Job suffers because he has sinned.  Such a move is shortsighted, as O’Donnell notes, because the narrator and God both strain to reaffirm Job as an upright and righteous man.  No, this book is about the mystery of a just God who introduces punishments into the life of a holy man.

I was a little surprised that O’Donnell did not place this mystery in the context of the created order, as Job does in his first complaint about his suffering (3:1-10).  Here Job specifically reverses all the terms of light, life and goodness in the six day account of Genesis 1.  Job’s friends immediately defend God and accuse Job of sin; but they are misguided.  God’s response confirms that Job was on target from the beginning, answering Job’s complaint with a long series of questions that demonstrate the mysteries in the created world (chapters 38-42).   The point is that justice and suffering in Job are not just abstract ideas detached from life on earth.  They are visceral realities of the order of the universe that extend from human affairs to the sun, moon, clouds, rain, and soil.

Though O’Donnell’s approach does not place suffering in a theology of creation, his excellent sermon on Job 42 nevertheless fits with this interpretation.  He argues that if Job is righteous, then there must be much about our human path in this world that remains a mystery to us: life exceeds our understanding and wisdom must know its limits! God does not give Job a rational explanation after all; instead he points to his power in the physical world as a reminder that his thoughts are not our thoughts.  The story ends with Job repentant, but the mystery left open.  O’Donnell shows that this mystery is only resolved in Jesus’ suffering and resurrection.  Indeed, the death of the righteous One and his rising again save us from our judgment and restore the whole world with a power that is beyond our imagining.  But that does not always lessen the anguish of suffering in our long wait for his kingdom to come at last.  Job is a long story that encourages a long wait.

O’Donnell’s book is easy and useful reading, despite what I think is sometimes too narrow a focus that does not address the connections between creation and wisdom.  I am increasingly convinced that if wisdom sermons are going to have significant staying power, they will do best to delve into the roots of wisdom in the tangible, created world.

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Jason Hood
Jason is a graduate of Rhodes College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Highland Theological College and the University of Aberdeen. Jason works as Scholar-in-Residence and director of Christ College Residency Program at Christ UMC. He's trying to figure out the twitter thing, twitter.com/jasonbhood.