Pouring cow urine over the text

I am prepping sermons in 1 Kings at the moment and came across this section in Dale Ralph Davis’ Focus on the Bible commentary.

We can say that 1 Kings 10 speaks a word of testimony, namely, that the prosperity of the people of God is always a gift of Yahweh’s goodness, which (I think) demands of us both gratitude (lest we idolize the gifts in place of God) and joy (lest we despise God’s gifts as though they were sinful). Some have difficulty with the latter response in 1 Kings 10. In spite of the positive tone of the writer commentators seem convinced that all that gold can’t be good and so feel impelled to emphasize the clouds on the horizon for Solomon’s kingdom. It reminds me of what missionary Don McClure once told about the Nuer people in the Sudan: ‘the Nuer believes that milk is a beverage for women and children, but he likes it so well that he cannot bear to see it all go to the women, so he makes a cocktail with a bite by adding cow urine, which makes it a man’s drink.’ That is, he can’t enjoy it unless he ruins it first. I wonder if we don’t do that with 1 Kings 10 – feel obligated to moan over ‘materialism’ and all that could possibly go wrong with such bounty rather than acknowledging that it is the blessing of the Lord that makes rich (cf. Prov 10:22) and being content to enjoy that should he give it. Must we, to stretch illustration into analogy, pour cow urine over the text in our panic to stay out of bed with the whore we call the health-and-wealth gospel?

Dale Ralph Davis, 1 Kings: The Wisdom & the Folly, Christian Focus, 2002, p. 104-5

Naturally, Davis’ comment is pertinent to 1 Kings 10 (the section he is commenting on), but it strikes me the sentiment is widely applicable to lots of preaching. Dare I say, an awful lot of Reformed preaching.

All too often, we allow potential dangers to drive what we apply from the text. Rather than allowing the text to speak for itself, on its own terms, and applying it as such we worry that people may reach all sorts of terrible errors if we do that. And so, we dampen the force of the text with the homiletic equivalent of cow urine. We spend so much time ensuring that nobody could go away with any potentially errant beliefs on the text that we fail to do proper justice to what it says on paper and the point it is actually making.

Perhaps a couple of examples might be useful:

  • We can spend so much time insisting that Acts 2:42-47 or Acts 4:32-37 have absolutely nothing to do with Socialism or Communism that we end up neutering the force of what the text actually says. We can end up failing to apply the text as it is really stated in favour of ensuring nobody falls into the pit of what we deem to be an errant interpretation.
  • We can worry that preaching any passages involving gifts or miraculous works will lead our people into the wildest forms of charismata and thus end up preaching against a perceived threat and neutering the actual force of the text. We downplay the miraculous so that our people don’t start getting funny ideas about miracles. Rather than allowing the significance of the signs to stand out (as they were intended to do) we get sermons dedicated to the cessationist doctrinal position. Our charismatic friends do the same in inverse for their position. That is to make no comment on the value of either view, just to say neither doctrine is really the point of these sorts of texts

There are, no doubt, lots of other examples you can think of too.

We need to make sure that we allow the text to speak for itself. That we don’t make our applications out of potential dangers. Instead, let’s allow the force of the text to speak and, if we are rightly committed to systematically preaching through the entire Bible, such a commitment should not lead our people down problematic, heretical paths.