Usually when I prepare to lead a group in Bible study, I try to go the extra mile. Besides reading the Bible text that we’ll be looking at (that’s the necessary bare minimum!), and reading the same supplemental material I assign to the group, the extra step is consulting one more commentary. That protects me from just parroting back what they’ve already read, and helps me to interact with a third perspective on the passage—the first being mine and the second being the shared supplemental resource. Recently I taught a study on the Bible’s book of Judges and the extra-credit commentary I used was a hoot to read. Not that it surprised me coming from the snarky, insightful, studious, persuasive, and best of all faithful pastor-teacher Dale Ralph Davis. His commentary in the Focus on the Bible series is called Judges: Such a Great Salvation (hereafter JSGS). My first introduction to Davis’s unique style was a year or so ago when I consulted his commentary on 1 Kings in preparation for a sermon. The way he presented his interpretation of chapter 18 convinced me to change what I thought was the main point of the story. While I didn’t have another paradigm-shifting epiphany this time around, his take on the book of Judges was invaluable. What makes JSGS such an excellent Judges commentary? I’m glad you asked!
JSGS is an expositional commentary. That means it reads like an “thoroughly-prepared” sermon that seeks to explain, illustrate, and apply a particular Bible passage to a congregational audience. I say “thoroughly” because I can’t image chapters like these preached in most churches simply because they contain portions that are a little too technical for the pulpit. Gotta communicate with all types, you know? Actually, since Davis has been both a seminary professor and a preacher, each chapter in his book is likely a combination of the fruit of sermon prep for the church and lecture prep for the classroom. In my opinion, that mix makes for the most interesting and useful combination for a Bible study—either for personal devotion or group discussion.
What do I mean by technical details? For one, Davis consults and interacts with alternative and competing interpretations in the scholarly literature. Not only does he cite technical evangelical commentaries, but he also dialogs with critical commentaries and scholarly journals. That may sound like overkill, but Davis’s interpretive conclusions are very well informed compared to the vast number of popular-level commentaries. That lends weight to his decisions on what the Bible says and means. Another technical example is his use of literary-structural outlines of each passage. One feature of ancient literature, considering that it arose in cultures that transmitted their sacred stories orally, is the use of chiastic patterns to facilitate standardized storytelling and aid memorization. The Bible, particularly the OT, is chock-full of chiasms, and Judges is no exception. The neat thing about chiastic textual structure is it functions as an important interpretive key for discerning what the author considered important and even the main point of a passage (or even the whole book). Davis pays careful attention to the structural outlines that scholars have discerned in Judges, pondering their implications for accurate meaning and faithful exposition of the text. While many preachers would consider shaping their explanations around the structure of the text, JSGS goes so far as to present the structure to the reader. Maybe it wouldn’t work so well in a sermon, but in a book it’s surprisingly helpful. Even so, Davis is such a masterful and charismatic communicator that I wouldn’t put it past him to whip out a chiasm in a sermon and succeed in making it work.
But don’t mistake JSGS for a technical commentary. Those types of commentaries are primarily useful for doing academic research or writing articles. Davis’s book is very applicable and accessible. Nearly all technical details are confined to the footnotes where they won’t distract the reader from the flow of the exposition. I also like JSGS’s format of including study questions at the end of each chapter. But it’s too bad the questions aren’t meant for heart and life application (there are a few exceptions). Mostly they aim at review of the author’s exposition, not just the Bible facts. For example, here are the questions at the end of the chapter on the episode of Samson and Delilah (Judges 16, p. 191).
- Was Samson’s ‘zest for life’ an abandonment of Yahweh who raised him up?
- Was Samson merely confident or arrogant in his dealings at Gaza?
- Why do we not see the work of the Spirit on Samson at this time?
- Why did Israel need to remember both the entertainment and the tragedy of Samson?
- Does Samson’s calling on Yahweh indicate repentance or revenge?
In terms of illustration and application, Davis also shines. The author is well-read in secular and church history, and from these subjects he often employs interesting stories to strengthen the point the Bible is making. Many of the stories he tells come from the U.S. Civil War and the major wars of the 20th century. A good illustration is always enhanced—one may say used for the glory of God and the edification of believers—when it supports life application. And Davis is a master at this. Each chapter of JSGS does its job of teaching, explaining, storytelling, convicting, and motivating to action. If you want to see how explicitly Christian the OT is—and I know that sounds like an anachronism but properly understood it is not—Davis’ commentary on Judges provides an excellent example of how to read the OT as Christian Scripture—the way Jesus taught we must interpret the OT.
At SermonAudio I noticed that Davis seems to have close to 1000 followers who regularly download and listen to his weekly sermons. Most of these folks are certainly not listening “live” in his congregation when each sermon is first preached. So if popularity without fame or familiarity is any indicator, Davis’s commentaries, which are developed from his sermon source material, have been well received because they deserve to be. The Bible book of Judges is a difficult book, but it’s not as theologically or culturally strange as it used to be. Davis’ practical expository commentary makes this pretty clear, and pretty compelling for Christians to dive into studying this often neglected OT book. If you’re sensing that God is tugging on your heart to give Judges another look, then JSGS would make a good choice. (And if you are a “supplementer” then you might also use Tim Keller’s Judges For You.)
Sermons on Judges by Dale Ralph Davis