As I’ve confessed here before, I don’t make much use of daily devotionals. Kind friends have recommended – even gifted – the best ones available, especially Surgeon’s Morning and Evening, and the compilation Daily Light. I’m told that the Daily Remembrancer, by James Smith, is also helpful, yet I remain unpersuaded. But multitudes of people more disciplined and sensible than me have benefited from books like these for generations.
Now there is a newcomer on the field – Milk and Honey, edited by Joel Beeke and published at the end of 2010 by RHB. If it’s possible to review a book fairly in the absence of much hope of using it for the purpose for which it was intended, here goes.
This one instantly stands out from the other daily readings currently available because of its variety, freshness, and orthodoxy. It is organised in an appealing manner from the start – each month is devoted to a different section of the bible, and each section (Genesis, Psalms, the OT historical books, the Gospels) has been assigned to a different writer. This means that for a whole month, the reader is guided through a particular book-sized portion of Scripture by a given expositor, giving you a certain amount of continuity and a better-rounded view of each section than you would otherwise have.
As to variety – each month is as varied as its writer, its passage of scripture, and the writer’s treatment of the scripture. That is to say, some of the contributors draw very practical applications from their portion, others are very experiential, others exegetical – on some days ruminative, on others exhorting to diligence; one day encouraging self-examination, the next day provoking the reader directly to worship the Saviour. Sometimes the focus is on one little verse or phrase, sometimes you zoom out to whole chapters. For days at a time you might be taken through closely consecutive portions, and then you might jump from one chapter to another much later in the book, and so on. A wide sweep of Scripture is covered, including narrative, poetical and doctrinal books.
As for freshness – the treatment is entirely contemporary. The contributors are all ordained pastors currently actively serving either in their own congregations or in seminaries. They speak from pastors’ hearts to readers in the flock here and now. I’ve also been surprised at how many new insights and lively expressions this book contains. The contributors have had to compress an indication of the text’s context, an explanation of any difficult words, an instructive application or two or three, and a punchy conclusion – all into a single page suitable for sluggish souls to read first thing in the morning and last thing at night. This has been achieved by getting straight to the point every time, and the resulting distillation means there is something to catch your attention – a new way of putting things, a fresh view of some familiar text or truth – on almost every other page.
And, of course, orthodoxy. Each of the writers stands firmly in what the Foreword calls the Reformed, experiential tradition – the rich, solid heritage of English Puritanism, the Scottish Covenanters, and the Dutch Nadere Reformatie. So if your heart sank when I said ‘contemporary’ above, let your spirits rise again – this is the same old familiar experiential covenantal theology of Rutherford, Boston, McCheyne, and their fellows, only living on and flourishing in today’s world too. This means a constant reference to or presupposition of the great doctrines of the faith, and a continual stress on the necessity of having these truths alive and operative in our soul’s experience here and now.
Personally, I can’t help saying that I found July’s treatment of the prophecy of Hosea to be the most instantly helpful of the whole book. The end of Hosea contains a few ‘landmark’ passages which reward the reader for puzzling through the earlier sections – say the start of chapter 14 especially (Take with you words, and come, and say, Take away all iniquity and receive us graciously…), but the treatment of Hosea here brings the whole book into a light where it all fits together, and in a way that speaks clearly and directly to the varieties of a soul’s spiritual condition. ‘God’s “therefores” are different from our “therefores”. Instead of using the greatness of Israel’s sins to demonstrate the greatness of his justice, he uses them to display the greatness of his mercy. Where sin abounded, there did grace much more abound. So, in response to “she forgat me,” the Lord says, “Therefore, behold, I will allure her.”’
The only other observation I would make is that apart from the editor himself, none of the contributors to this volume are particularly Big Names. In fact, I would cite that as one of the major strengths of this book. It has been impressing itself on me for the past several months that pastors are meant to pastor. When good men get good work published and gain a wider audience for the truths their function is to proclaim, that is a good thing. But what the church fundamentally needs is not so much writers and broadcasters, as preachers. Good men go unnoticed in wider circles because their first priority is their own congregation, which they pour all their energies into pastoring. It’s a pity if there’s nobody in the church to write books and get published, but we could do with being more appreciative of the hard work that ordinary ministers put in to mining the Word, praying for souls, and feeding the flock, week after week with minimal recognition and maybe not much obvious fruit. It’s the weekly preaching which is the ordained means of convincing and converting sinners and building up the saints, perhaps not with particularly dramatic results in either case, but even when it’s hard work and apparently pointless, there’s no substitute for using the ordained means. The impact of many a faithful pastor, sermons spoken into the air and no publications list to his name, is often summed up in the unquantifiable legacy of gradually edified souls. All of which to say – a book like this is sort of a snapshot of the kind of ministering that we stand sorely in need of today, and if these men aren’t all household names, it’s not for lack of gifts or graces. Envy their congregations (in, of course, the best possible Christian way) and make the most of what they’ve put in print here.
Disclosure of interest: a couple of the contributors are FPs.
Disclosure of ecumenicity: most of them are not.