Several weeks ago, my son J. R. asked me to develop a list of ten books preachers should buy and read. Without understanding the total implication of what I said, I told him that I would. As I prepared to put a list together, I realized that I had embarked on an almost impossible task.
As the writer of Ecclesiastes correctly puts it, “of making many books there is no end” (Ecclesiastes 12:12). Thousands of books worth buying and reading are published every year. Since the invention of the press, millions of books have been published and many of them should be part of a good library.
A good library is a must for pastors who desire to communicate the truth of Scripture and who desire to keep the soul of their ministry alive. Today’s pastors minister to educated congregations, and members refuse to listen to pastors who shut them out of the storehouse of knowledge because of their pastors’ unwillingness to read and study.
Some pastors become so involved in their ministry that they fail to dedicate time in their busy schedules to reading good books. It does not matter how involved pastor may become in their ministry, they must find time to read every day.
In his book Preaching and Preachers (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1971), D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes about pastors “who stop reading after they finish their training. They think they have acquired all they need; they have their lecture notes, and nothing further is necessary. The result is that they vegetate and become quite useless. Keep on reading and read the big works” (p. 177).
With the high price of books today, it becomes difficult for pastors to build good libraries with their ministerial salaries. This means that pastors must be very selective when buying books. If pastors cannot afford to buy many books, they should be selective and buy the best books.
Lloyd-Jones, in his advice to pastors, wrote: “The preacher has thus to choose his reading judiciously, not only for the sake of his own soul but also that he may be able to help others, not only directly but also in their reading. Much harm is often done by advising people to read the wrong type of book” (p. 176).
It was Francis Bacon who said: “some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested.”
Charles Spurgeon, in one of his lectures to his students, said: “The next rule I shall lay down is, master those books you have. Read them thoroughly. Bathe in them until they saturate you. Read and re-read them, masticate them, and digest them. Let them go into your very self. Peruse a good book several times, and make notes and analyses of it. A student will find that his mental constitution is more affected by one book thoroughly mastered than by twenty books which he has merely skimmed. Little learning and much pride come of hasty reading.”
This brings me, then, to the list of ten books pastors should buy and read. Before I submit my list, it is necessary to explain the criteria that led me to select the books on my list. From the outset, I am aware that any other person developing such a list would come up with a different list. Thus, it becomes necessary to explain the rationale for selecting the ten books on my list.
1. The books focus primarily on the Old Testament. It would be impossible for me to select ten books in each field of study, or even ten books that would cover all fields of study. The focus is to help pastors gain a better knowledge of the Old Testament.
2. The list was developed to help pastors and seminary students who preach and teach from the Old Testament on a regular basis. The list is not designed for scholars or for those who desire to embark on a scholarly study of the Old Testament.
If I were writing to scholars, I would probably begin the list with Julius Wellhausen’s Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel. The presuppositions adopted by Wellhausen have become the basis of much Old Testament study today, but I doubt that a pastor needs to read Wellhausen in order to prepare a good sermon from the Old Testament.
In my seminary days, we read Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction, but a pastor who desires to gain a basic understanding of the content and theology of an Old Testament book will not find in Eissfeldt the kind of information that will be of help for teaching and preaching.
3. The list is aimed at helping pastors gain a better understanding of the content of the Old Testament. If truth be told, many pastors who preach and teach from the Old Testament do not know the content of the Old Testament. If pastors were asked to place, let us say, Habakkuk in its proper context, most pastors would not know the religious, social, political, and historical issues that gave impetus to Habakkuk’s message.
4. The list deals primarily with books that are still in print. Many outstanding books of the past are out of print. To select books that no longer can be bought is to thwart the purpose of the list.
Thus, it is with some trepidation that I submit the list of books that I believe will help pastors gain a good overall knowledge of the Old Testament. The list will be posted next week. Until then, “devote yourself to reading, to preaching and to teaching” (1 Timothy 4:13).
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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