The Gospel Coalition

 

Ajith Fernando. Deuteronomy: Loving Obedience to a Loving God. Preaching the Word. Wheaton: Crossway, 2012. 765 pp. £28.99/$44.99.



This massive expository commentary forms part of a series written by pastors for pastors, though with an eye to others who cherish to God’s word. The series is thus aimed neither for seminary students wrestling with critical questions nor for scholars. The aim is to model expository preaching with a commitment to biblical authority and a desire for readability. These points are important because any review needs to be based on what the book is and for whom it is written.

Fernando has broken down the 34 chapters of Deuteronomy into 63 different chapters in his book. Most of the chapters follow the ordering of Deuteronomy itself, although two work with topical groupings: chapter 37, “Giving to God,” includes 14:22–29 and 15:19–23; chapter 49, “Rules for a Considerate Society,” includes 23:15–25 and 24:19–22. Some of the chapters on the Decalogue deal with just one verse, while chapter 55 on the different blessings and curses covers the 68 verses of chapter 28. Within each chapter, there are points and sub-points, often related to particular verses within the section under discussion. The chapters on individual verses in the Decalogue are exceptions, focusing on topics related more generally to the verses.

The author has spent thirty-five years ministering to first-generation Christians in Sri Lanka, especially among young people. Eight of those have been spent labouring on this book amid the pressures of ministry. It is no surprise, then, that the book is filled with the passion, anecdotes, and wisdom of someone deeply rooted in pastoral ministry in a challenging situation. For this reviewer this was the overriding impression of the book. It pulses with life, with enthusiasm, with a great love for the word of God, for his honour and his glory. I suspect that the massive size of the book, the product of the frequently free-ranging nature of some of expositions, is also rooted here.

There are a number of other features that this reviewer particularly appreciates. First, the author’s instinct is both pastoral and biblical. On every page there pulsates a passion for God’s word and for God’s people, for lives of integrity and truth. Further, Fernando does not shrink from the tough questions and, in discussing some thorny questions such as the place of the law for the Christian, the ongoing significance of the Sabbath or the challenges of the commands to “devote” the Canaanites, there is a judicious approach. For example, on the ongoing significance of the law, he works with a theological and moral principlism, recognising both continuity and discontinuity.

Second, the author’s integrity shines through. The ministry that Fernando has had in Sri Lanka with Youth for Christ shines through, whether dealing with the challenges of growth or the problems of disunity or the need to avoid a job with bribery as part of it. One of my particular favourites is his discussion of the Sabbath, when he observes that many in their fifties are “shadows” of what they have been, “angry, uninspiring, and unhappy” and going through the motions because of burn out (p. 192). Fernando fears it for others, but the book itself demonstrates that being “uninspiring” is not a danger for him!

Third, at many points there are perceptive insights about the text. They range at points more freely than the text itself and are often full of wisdom. The reminder in discussing Deut7 that war is hell and that the Bible is realistic in a way that some just war discussions are not is one I found helpful.

Alongside these strengths, there are two areas that are weaker. First, at times more scholarly engagement is needed. While of course it is not a commentary written by a scholar, nor is it written for scholars, there are some characteristics of all writing that should be scholarly. For example, in discussing questions of authorship and historical reliability, there should have been more evidence of at least listening to or engaging with different points of view, both in the text and in the bibliography. In similar vein, sometimes those who have different viewpoints highlight features in the text we may miss. For example, in discussing Deut22:19b, Fernando comments that a man who has wrongly suspected his wife of unfaithfulness may not divorce her: “Many today would react to this statement with shock and incredulity. Why should a man be forced to live until death with a woman he ‘hates’ (22:13)?” (p. 516). But what of the woman’s view?

Second, for a series concerned to model expository preaching, there is scope for better handling of the text. There are three parts to this:

(1)The units of text for exposition should have the same boundaries as the text itself indicates. On a number of occasions, the boundaries do not match. For example, chapter 2 of the exposition works with 1:4–8, while the opening of Deuteronomy is 1:1–5. Or in Deut4, verse 4 goes with what precedes (4:1–4), not with what follows (4:4–6a; p. 119).

(2) Sometimes the exposition of a given passage ranges somewhat wider than the point that the passage is making. For example, in expounding the inspiration that comes from past victories (1:4–5), Fernando insightfully highlights that rehearsing God’s action in history “gives us confidence and the assurance of God’s similar intervention as we face present challenges” (p. 38). However he then goes on to look at the tragedy of failing to trust. That’s a biblical point and could be made well from 1:2–3 or from the rest of ch. 1. But by airing the point here, untethered to the text, it runs the risk of inoculating hearers for when Deuteronomy does talk explicitly about it, and modelling something that allows less biblically rounded pastors to ride hobby-horses. It is not that the insights are untrue. Nor is it that they are badly made. Rather, they are not always what the passage is about. This greatly increases the length of the book, too.

(3) In places there should be greater attention to biblical theology. For example, on 1:9–12, Fernando makes analogical connections of Israel to the church and Moses to contemporary leadership, but the major salvation-historical connections are ignored. The main sub-points for 1:9–12, “Growth and Stress,” are “Stress Is Inevitable in a Growing Movement,” “We Must Talk about our Stress,” and “The People’s Problems Become the Leader’s Problems” (pp. 45–48). Some of these insights are well-made and certainly striking. But at least part of this section is highlighting the fulfilment of God’s promises made to the patriarchs (cf., e.g., Gen 26:4; Deut 1:9–11). Along with the promises of land possession in Deut 1:8, there is the clear picture that in and through Israel God’s purposes for creation are being carried forward.

All in all, this is an engaging conversation partner for the preacher in preparation and an encouraging read for those wanting to hear God’s voice in Deuteronomy.


James E. Robson
Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University
Oxford, England, UK



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