Alec Motyer, Roots: Let the Old Testament Speak. Christian Focus, 2009, 411 pages.

Some surveys have found that only 20% of Christian sermons are from the Old Testament. The editor of Preaching, an evangelical journal for preachers, laments, “I annually receive hundreds of sermon manuscripts from ministers in a variety of Protestant denominations … Less than one-tenth of the sermons submitted to Preaching are based on Old Testament texts.” Another writer complains that on the relatively rare occasion when an Old Testament text is announced, “it is often only the text for some topical treatise that soon departs from its context.”

This deficiency in the spiritual diet of most Christians explains many of the spiritual problems in the modern Church and in the modern Christian. How can we expect our congregations to be healthy when they are being largely deprived of 39 of the 66 books (60%) of the Bible – the very same books that provided the spiritual nourishment of Christ and His apostles?

So, when I see new books on the Old Testament by evangelical authors, I usually rejoice and pray that God will use them to redress the present unhealthy imbalance. And when the book is by Dr Alec Motyer, the well-known and much-loved preacher and teacher of God’s Word, I am especially glad.

Dr Motyer is the author of numerous books, perhaps the best known being The Prophecy of Isaiah. He is also the editor of IVP’s Old Testament series The Bible Speaks Today. Formerly a Professor of Old Testament and then Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, he was also a pastor for many years, which gives a welcome practical bent to his writing. The wisdom and experience of his eighty plus years also lend a special gravity and credibility to his words. And when a man of such knowledge and experience begins an interview with, “I’m not really a scholar, I’m just a man who loves the Word of God,” you know that you are about to learn from a teacher who like his master is “meek and lowly in heart.”

On balance, I would describe Roots as an Old Testament Survey rather than an Old Testament Introduction or an Old Testament Theology. Dr Motyer does cover some introductory matters, especially in the first two chapters, and Old Testament theology is frequently discussed. But Roots is still primarily a survey of the Old Testament books — in chronological rather than canonical order.

I learned from this book and I am glad I read it. Motyer’s passion for the Old Testament is palpable. His writing is simple and usually clear. I welcomed his conservative stance on the disputed authorship of the Pentateuch and Isaiah, and on controversial issues like the slaughter of the Canaanites, and the imprecatory Psalms. Some of the “shaded-box” discussions are extremely helpful. He also concludes each chapter with a brief list of books for further reading, which would be a great place to start in building an Old Testament library.

Having said that, however, there is unevenness to the book: it is unpredictable and inconsistent in presentation. Sometimes Motyer provides an outline of the book, other times not. Sometimes he gives a survey of the whole book, other times not. Sometimes he gives the main themes, other times not. Sometimes he focuses in great detail on a few passages, other times he gives a more general overview. If you like variety then you will like this. I prefer a much more uniform presentation – it gives me hooks to hang the information on and helps establish the teaching in my long-term memory.

I would also have preferred more Christ-centeredness. While Motyer’s first chapter is “Starting with Jesus,” and he says that the book will show how the Old Testament moves “forward to the climactic flowering in Jesus,” there is not much of Jesus nor of the Gospel in the rest of the book. There are some good Messiah-centered expositions of a few key themes (e.g. the Servant of the Lord), and of a few passages such as Isaiah 53 and Psalm 110, but not much else of that nature. In fact, in one place (p. 77), Motyer denies that the Old Testament believers believed in the coming Messiah through the typology of the sacrifices. Instead, he says that “the sin-offering provided for forgiveness,” and traces their salvation to the offeror’s faith in the promise of forgiveness through that sacrifice. Only from Isaiah 53 forwards, says Motyer, did believers understand that the sacrifice was to be a person. I strongly disagree. “Person-centered” faith was present from Genesis 3:15 onwards, as God focused all attention on the promised seed (offspring) of the woman.

In a rather confusing paragraph, he also denies that the Old Testament appearances of the Angel of the Lord were pre-incarnate appearances of Christ, or in any sense “a divine condescension – God taking human form to ‘accommodate’ himself to mankind” (p. 84). He seems to link these theophanies to the image of God in man and the dignity of the body.

I suppose this all comes down to the frequently unanswered (even unasked) question in Old Testament studies. How were Old Testament believers saved? By faith, by works, or by a mixture of both? By faith in the sacrifices, by faith in God (in general), or by faith in the Messiah (in particular)? If Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are sitting at the same heavenly table as New Testament believers (Matt. 8:11), are the New Testament believers giving all glory to Christ while the Old Testament believers are polishing their own medals? Or getting to know Christ for the first time? These vital questions remain unanswered in this book – perhaps explaining Motyer’s rather negative assessments of Old Testament characters such as Samson and David.

So where should you begin studying the Old Testament? I recommend starting with the ESV Study Bible or The Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible (although NIV). They have excellent introductory chapters on each Old Testament book, the presentation is superb, and the content of both the introductions and the study notes are very Christ-centered. Especially study two wonderful sections on Old Testament salvation in the ESV Study Bible (pp. 23-26, 2635-2661). Then move on to read the hundred or so pages in Calvin’s Institutes on the relation between the Old and New Testaments (Book 2, chapters 7-11), followed by Jonathan Edward’s History of  the Work of Redemption (especially the first 100 or so pages). That will give you a firm Gospel-centered foundation before you progress to something like Mark Dever’s Promises Made, and then on to some of the more specialized introductions and surveys of the Old Testament: Dillard & Longman’s Introduction to the Old Testament (though too concessive to critical scholarship at times), William Dumbrell’s The Faith of Israel, the Moody Introductions, or the present book under review.

PS. You may already have this book in your library under a different name. In 2001 it was published by Baker Books under the title Men with a Message and was the Old Testament companion volume to John Stott’s New Testament version of the same name.

Review originally published at The Gospel Coalition Reviews.