Numbers: God's Presence in the Wilderness

By Iain M. Duguid
Wheaton, IL : Crossway (2006). 399 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Michael Grisanti
18.1 (Spring 2007) : 119-121

R. Kent Hughes, former pastor at the College Church of Wheaton, is the editor for this series and has tasked each author with writing a commentary that focuses on the preaching of that biblical book. As one endorser wrote, “No academic aloofness here, but down-to-earth, preacher-to-preacher meat for God’s people” (back cover). The series is driven by unqualified commitment to biblical authority, clear exposition of Scripture, readability, and practical application.

The author of this volume, Iain Duguid, was a Professor of Old Testament at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California, but now teaches at Grove City College in Pennsylvania. In this volume Duguid seeks to aid both pastors and lay people on this journey by explaining the profundities of the biblical text, especially its less transparent portions, and communicating the lasting message of God’s devotion to those who follow Him in faith.

After a brief (9-page) thematic introduction to the book, Duguid provides 36 chapters or messages that cover the 36 chapters of the biblical book. In some cases two chapters in Numbers are treated in one message and other times a message treats only half a chapter from Numbers. He begins each chapter/message with a catchy title and an illustration to lead the reader into the primary idea of the message. After presenting the message with varying numbers of points, a message ends with probing questions and pointed exhortations. The volume concludes with endnotes for each message (as few as one and as many as thirteen for a message), a Scripture index, a general index, and an index of sermon illustrations arranged topically.

The volume has several strengths and weaknesses. To have a commentary that works through a biblical book, let alone an OT book, with a primary purpose of preaching the passage is almost unheard of. Modeling the use of an introduction with an illustration that draws the listener into the message and concluding the message with clear probing questions and pointed exhortations serves as a good reminder for any preacher of the Word. Even indexing those illustrations is a nice feature of the book. Each message seeks to explain, with clarity and relevance, the most fundamental truths a reader would encounter in a given biblical passage.

Nevertheless, this volume’s treatment of Numbers has some drawbacks. This reviewer’s reservations, doubtless, arise from his own preferred preaching style, especially when preaching from an OT passage. The commentary assumes that a preacher would draw on other important information on the Book of Numbers from another commentary. Understanding key parts of the book would be enhanced if more attention were given to the place Numbers has in the salvation history of God’s chosen people. Duguid makes no attempt to give his readers the big picture of the Book of Numbers. What are the major sections and how does that contribute to one’s understanding of the larger context of the book? None of the outline points has any verse parameters provided. That is because some sections may closely follow a given section out of a chapter in Numbers, while other outline points are only loosely connected to a set of verses.

Though clear and relevant sermonizing of a biblical book is often done poorly, Duguid’s commentary seems to neglect another part of the process. To the present reviewer, preaching a biblical book should help the listeners have a better understanding of what that book says in addition to how it is relevant to their lives. Preaching should enhance Bible literacy as well as model the manner in which one takes a message given to an ancient audience and makes it understandable and, when appropriate, livable by a modern audience.

Finally, the writer’s broader theological position will clearly impact his preaching of an OT text and limit or enhance the usefulness of a given commentary. Duguid approaches the text from a thoroughly Reformed perspective. As an example of this issue, in the latter part of his message on Num 15:22-41, when commenting on the faithfulness God expected of His people and their tendency toward unfaithfulness (196-98), Duguid exhorts his readers to have their Sabbaths spill over into other days besides Sunday. He then has a section on baptism and refers to it as a sign of God’s covenant faithfulness. He exhorts his readers to “improve your baptism” and to talk with their children regularly about their baptism. This baptism to which he refers is effusion (water poured on a person) as an infant. What do the Sabbath and infant baptism have to do with this passage in Numbers?

To be honest, the reviewer is still not sure how he would use the volume in preparing messages from Numbers. I think that I would turn to this volume after I have worked through the meaning of the passage and am considering how to introduce and apply that message to a modern audience. Am I glad I own this volume? Yes, but to be perfectly honest, I did not purchase the volume (it was a perk for writing this review!). Would I buy every volume of this series? Probably not. I would want to look at how it treats key passages before I added a given volume to my library. Knowing the author might help my decision. Having said that, many of the things that Duguid explains the Book of Numbers are things most preachers need to think about in presenting a relevant message to their audiences.