On Dale Ralph Davis’s “The Word Became Fresh.”
God is always surprising his people with bedewed tokens of grace, mercy, and faithfulness in incessantly fresh ways.
If one aims to revive interest in the dour texts of Old Testament (OT) Scripture, one is obliged to possess a keen mind and sharp wit. To make the dolorous delightful requires a rugged preoccupation with the intersection of theological dogma and functional life. Such is what enables author and professor Dale Ralph Davis to be so acutely suited to filleting OT narratives to reveal the God in, underneath, and behind them all. The former pastor of Woodland Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Mississippi and current Minister in Residence of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia, South Carolina, utilizes his wealth of pastoral insight and biblical expertise to great effect in his writing, having published numerous OT studies, including commentaries on Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Samuel, among several others. In his 2007 book, The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts, Davis purposefully parrots some of his previous studies in order to craft a brief treatise for ministers looking to engage in sermonizing OT narratives. His playful yet polemical examination of the precedence and practice of such exposition allows this crisp work to stay fresh, even as it endeavors to imbue its reader with the same.
In The Word Became Fresh, Davis’s aim is rather simple: to offer preachers an array of preparatory insights to allow for more faithful OT proclamation. The author’s self-proclaimed reticence in the book’s preface belies its invaluable and inestimable worth. Davis’s perusal of the essential preliminaries one needs for preaching OT narratives is neatly packed into nine succinct chapters, each with a distinct objective the author determines to explore. The opening chapter is aptly concerned with the preacher’s approach to studying, let alone conveying, a message derived from such obtuse passages of Scripture, throughout which one is disabused of any notion of going it alone. “We are guilty of arrogance, not merely neglect,” Davis affirms, “when we fail to beg for the Spirit’s help in the study of Scripture.”1 From there, one is introduced to several elemental “quirks” of OT narratives and how to navigate them. In chapter three, Davis examines what he refers to as “The Quad Promise”2 of Yahweh through the lenses of the thrilling yet tenuous chapters of Genesis 12, 23, and 26. In Davis’s mind, the seeming fragility of God’s program constitutes the bulk of OT drama. “The chemistry of divine providence,” he writes, “takes the sludge and crud and confusion of our doings and makes it the soil that produces the fruit of his faithfulness.”3
One is, then, conducted to the proverbial cliffs to consider the “packaging” of OT narratives, which, as Davis suggests, have a “clear design which in turn may turn up sermonic fodder.”4 The placement of specific stories is, perhaps, one of the most important details to clue one in on the particular message the historian aims to relay. A similar emphasis is expressed in chapter six, where Davis stresses the necessity of studying an “individual passage in the light of the whole book.”5 This macroscopic method is paramount if one endeavors to avoid pastoral and biblical pitfalls. Sandwiched in between those contextual discussions, however, is a chapter encouraging preachers to grapple with the “nasties,” that is, the uncouth and uncomfortable OT Scriptures. In avoiding these portions of biblical narrative, ministers are robbing their sheep of robust glimpses of the God of the Word. “Don’t be afraid to wade into the nasty narratives of the Old Testament,” Davis says, “for it’s in the nasty stuff you’ll find the God of scary holiness and incredible grace waiting to reveal himself.”6
Chapter seven is not only the longest but also the most significant. Too often, OT pulpit exposition tends to dabble into the moralization of certain stories and archetypes, inviting a fabled approximation to the biblical narratives. Such tendencies are not only erroneous but are also, and more critically, thieving the glory and goodness of God from being seen in all its rich complexity. Davis’s winsome writing and affecting application directs the reader to grasp the imperceptible sovereignty of a God who swoops into the ruinous mayhem of his creatures’ lives in order to reveal himself as their indispensable hope. This theme is carried forward into chapters eight and nine, in which the author summarizes the narrative thread which runs throughout OT history, i.e., the self-disclosure of God himself. “God,” Davis says, “has given his word as a revelation of himself; if then I use his word rightly, I will long to see him, and he will be the focus of my study.”7 That which is so customarily seen and adored in the appearing of Christ in the NT is, therefore, integral to understanding the OT as well. Namely, that the God of the Bible is not one to “despise you in your fears but stoops down to meet you in them.”8
Critiquing a work such as this is more difficult than one might imagine. Davis’s ownership of language and intent proceeds in the creation of a tightly wound book whose beneficence is barely scratched through the course of a single reading. If one were allowed to be pedantic, footnotes would have proved immensely more helpful than endnotes — as would the inclusion of more scriptural citations. While Davis advises that one “have the biblical text handy in order to carry on your ‘Berean’ work,”9 the occasional reproduction of the biblical texts would have proved worthwhile. Furthermore, his concluding thoughts in chapter eight prove to be a curious end to a stirring consideration of the “center” of OT narrative preaching. Here, Davis proceeds to lay out his own guidelines for christological sermonizing of OT texts, stating that he does not “feel compelled to make every Old Testament (narrative) passage point to Christ in some way,” precisely because he does not think “Christ himself requires it.”10 His brief analysis of Jesus’s testimony in Luke 24, which, seemingly, controverts Davis’s assertion, is less than satisfactory in affirming his point. The author’s self-proclaimed discipline of resisting forced Christology in OT preaching, while commendable, seems to be beyond the purview of the book itself.
But, scrupulousness aside, The Word Became Fresh is among the most outstandingly refreshing pastoral books, remaining extraordinarily readable and approachable for ministerial professional and lay-person alike. Throughout, one is invited to stand in awe at the God who “cannot get close enough to his people,”11 as this God is seen subverting every expectation so often attributed to the divine. Whereas one’s circumstances might seduce one into resigning all hope of the future, Davis eloquently demonstrates that such feelings are not the consequence modernity but have been common to the human experience since the beginning. Indeed, it has ever been God’s propensity use such chaotic and cluttered moments in order to illustrate just how great his faithfulness is (Lam. 3:22–23). “There is no one,” Davis rightly notes, “so disturbing, so surprising, so steadying, so fascinating as the God of the Bible.”12 He is always surprising his people with bedewed tokens of grace, mercy, and faithfulness in incessantly fresh ways.
Dale Ralph Davis, The Word Became Fresh: How to Preach from Old Testament Narrative Texts (Ross-shire, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2007), 1.
“The Quad Promise”: People, Protection, Programme, and Place. See pages 32–33.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 41.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 45.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 77.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 74.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 121.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 124.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, ii.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 135.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 83.
Davis, Word Became Fresh, 122.