It's been some time since I did a full-fledged book review here at Sacred Chaos, but today it's time to revisit that wondrous exercise. I do so with a disclaimer, for it will be rather awkward. Today's post delves into a smallish tome written to encourage people on their spiritual journeys. More to the point, it is written to challenge and give fresh courage to people who qualify themselves as followers of Jesus, and it's especially helpful and applicable to Christian leaders.
That is not what makes this review rather surreal. Instead, that has to do with the fact that the author of this brief work, True Word for Tough Times, is Dale Ralph Davis. That's right. Today, the son reviews the words of the father.
A few points of order: I don't do starred reviews (1 to 5 stars) but rather interact with the text itself. I find this more helpful. Also, as I grew up under my dad's preaching I think I have a decent sense for his speaking style and how it translates to the written word. That's not to say this will be non-critical. Also, keep in mind that this book stands within the stream of Dad's past excellent commentaries (esp. his stuff on the Old Testament historical books) and other works (like if you want to know how to preach from the Old Testament). It is a different book but it still comes with Dad's desire to get the meaning accurate and the communication clear and fresh.
The book is actually a selection of five messages Dad preached three years ago at the Evangelical Movement of Wales Conference in Aberystwyth. Covering the broad swath of the prophet Jeremiah's ministry, the teaching is meant--in Dad's words--to "supply a healthy corrective to some of the flippant and flimsy optimism we meet in certain 'Christian' propaganda about the Christian life and ministry." In short, life as a follower of Jesus can have some dynamic success, but then there are stretches where one believes that swimming in goat drool would feel like an upgrade.
Dad's messages tackle various facets that float to the top in Jeremiah's teaching and experience. There is the sufficiency and strength from the Word of God (Message 1 on Jeremiah 1); our complaints and God's pointed assurances (Message 2 on Jeremiah 15:10-21; God's sovereignty, truth, and providence (Message 3 on Jeremiah 27-29); what happens when people resist God's word (Message 4 on Jeremiah 37-39); and faithfulness even when it doesn't seem to matter (Message 5 on Jeremiah 40-45). Readers who are hoping for a comprehensive treatment of the book of Jeremiah will be disappointed, but that will be due to forgetting what Dad's aim would be. He never intended to attempt such a comprehensive task in such limited gulps.
The messages follow Dad's usual modus operandi of quality exposition, with stories and illustrations (the story of Christian Watt on pages 57-58 are alone worth the price of the book) that amplify the teaching of the text, followed by seasons of application that are quality "take-aways" from the ancient-yet-relevant message of Scripture. I would say that even if there are those who may disagree with Dad's emphases have to admit he's done a lot of study of the original Hebrew text to deliver it to the reader. At first, the reading might seem slightly choppy, as one might expect for sermons that are being transposed to written material (a process more difficult than we might imagine). I'll confess that the way I smoothed this out was to imagine--as I read--this was not a book but rather listening to Dad preach this in the pulpit. I was surprised at how this got rid of a lot of literary wrinkles.
As to specifics, here are some of the "best of" moments:
Pages 12-13, on the relentless of God's message: "In times of superficial religion...of hardened indifference...of weak compromise...in days of national disaster, the Word of God kept on coming. It is relentless; it is unstoppable; it simply keeps on coming, no matter what the climate seems to be, no matter what the circumstances are."
Page 34, dealing with Jeremiah's complaint that God seems like a deceitful brook and how we can step over a line at times with God: "I think we need to understand in the psycho-slanted age in which we live...that you can step out of line in your complaining to God. In a previous age we may have been overly cautioned about this; in our day we may not be cautioned enough...[I]f you question people like that they might say, 'But this is how I really feel.' Sometimes when you really feel that way, the best response is to keep quiet. In other word, anguish must not dissolve reverence, especially when you realize that it is still this God alone who gives you the very breath that you use to express your despair...So bemoan his mysteries. You have that freedom. Bemoan his mysteries, but do not assault his majesty. Do not deny his character. Do not step over that line."
Page 54, on not going off on some wild interpretation of the Bible: "Be very careful that you stick closely to the claims of Scripture and do not go beyond them. Sometimes the whole state of an individual depends on how reliable you are in communicating the truth of the Scripture."
Pages 82 and 92 of Jeremiah's final years and overall 'success' in life: "There may be times when you have to make a hard decision and when you opt to make the non-attractive choice for Christ's sake and that of others...Sometimes that is the decision we need to make, sacrificing personal advantage and comfort and perhaps preference. There is a pattern to ponder here." "What is the use of a ministry like that? Well, among other things, does it not tell us...that service to Christ may prove continually agonizing and apparently fruitless?...Jeremiah's experience indicates that you have some situations in which you can serve Christ and meet nothing but hardship, trouble, anguish and frustration. If nothing else, seeing this may help correct the ministry-success syndrome that is so frequently beamed at us."
I could go on, but to get the full force, you really need to read the book. It's a well-constructed blend of pointing out realistic trials of life combined with God's faithfulness during those times. Personally, as I read it, it helped me make peace with some of the past moments when I felt like my time in ministry hadn't amounted to much, if anything at all.
Perhaps there could have been a capsule overview of the book of Jeremiah in the introduction, with bullet points of time and date of writing, major themes, and so on, for laypersons less familiar with the wild and wooly world of the Old Testament prophets like Jeremiah. Yet that is a minor issue with what--whether he's my Dad or not--is a magnificently helpful piece of work. If you need encouragement in life, several challenging reminders for the road ahead, or simply want to fresh look at God, True Word for Tough Times is a highly preferable tonic.
Many thanks, Dad. And those thanks extend well beyond this book.