Preaching from the Prophets

The next stop on our journey through Preaching the Old Testament (ed. Scott M. Gibson) is the article by John Sailhamer on “Preaching from the Prophets.” There is no way that I can do justice to this chapter with a simple post here. In short, it is worth buying the book if for no other reason than this article. The view that Sailhamer presents of the message of the prophetic books is enlightening and will change the way you read and preach the prophets.

The question that Sailhamer raises is “whether or not the message of the Old Testament prophets in its present form as Scripture is as ‘preachable’ as the New Testament gospel” (115). His answer, which might be jarring to some of the ways we have been taught to read the OT prophets, is that many of the central themes of the NT (of which faith is one) “had already played themselves out in full measure within the books of the Old Testament themselves” (116).

At the same time, these themes are found not so much in the sermon of the prophet but in the sermon about the prophet. In essence, the heart of the essay is this distinction between the sermon that was preached in a particular social setting by a particular human prophet and the prophetic book that has been passed down to us the readers. Thus, to faithfully preach the OT prophets one must make this distinction. What the preacher finds is that it is the prophetic book that explicitly teaches new covenant ideas.

As an example of this, Sailhamer addresses how one should preach the book of Jonah (p. 127). Preaching the sermon of the prophet would mean preaching the five-Hebrew-word sermon, “In yet forty days Nineveh will be destroyed” (Jon 3:4). Preaching the sermon about the prophet would mean preaching the other 705 words of the book, whose new covenant focus can be seen in the grace shown to the Gentile sailors and Ninevites as well as Jonah’s selfishness with respect to God’s treatment of the Gentiles. As such, then, the book of Jonah calls its readers to faith.

There is much more to the chapter, and I encourage you to read it. I will leave you with a couple of good quotes from the chapter:

The prophets did not write their books to teach their readers the Sinai covenant. Their intent, like Moses’s, was to call their readers to a life of faith under the new covenant (Isa. 7:9b). (120)

…by means of the process of ‘book making,’ the message of the ancient prophets has been refitted to serve a new life setting, one that focuses the reader’s attention on an individual reading and meditation on Scripture as the means of finding divine blessing and wisdom. In such a ‘new covenant’ environment, the ‘new heart’ is presented as something to be nourished by God’s Word and given life and growth by the ‘Spirit.’ (126)

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6 responses to this post.

  1. Provocative and excellent post Randy,

    I have a few questions (you saw that coming didn’t you?). My questions come more from the learners perspective because some of Sailhamer’s distinctions are new to me so know that I bring very little to the table here. What I do bring is a number of sermons from the Isaiah, Jeremiah, and the Minor Prophets so this conversation is of great interest to me (and I have read Sailhamer’s chapter).

    First of all what do you think of Fee and Stuart who suggest that “less than 2 percent of OT prophecy is messianic. Less than 5 percent specifically describes the New Covenant age. Less than 1 percent concerns events to come” (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible, 3rd ed. [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003], 182)?

    Another perspective is that of Duvall and Hays (Grasping God’s Word, 373) who write, “Theologically the prophets proclaim their message from the context of the Mosaic covenant, primarily as defined in Deuteronomy. They tell the people to repent, to turn from idols, and to return to the covenant they agreed to keep in Deuteronomy. They warn the Israelites of the terrible punishments God threatened in Deuteronomy. The ultimate punishment, which they announce with sorrow, is the loss of God’s presence and the loss of the Promised Land.”

    Is Sailhamer’s point really new (apart from the Mosaic-New Covenant distinction)? In other words, most of what I have read on preaching the prophets and in representative commentaries would all agree that Jonah’s message, for example, is not “our message” in the same way it was for Nineveh. So is Sailhamer’s point that we preach the final form of what we have in front of us while looking forward to NC realities?

    Lastly, since you studied under this great scholar and know the position far better than most, do you see any weaknesses with the position that cause you to pause or tweak the view here or there?

    Thanks Randy for your hard work on this series, I pray our understanding of the Word is better for it. Blessings!

  2. Paul,

    First a disclaimer…I learned quickly that I should not speak on behalf of those under whom I studied. I’m sure I haven’t completely understood their positions. Thus, although there was much I wanted to add in this post, I was careful not to attempt to explain his position. I’m sure what I understand of it may vary from what he really believes. With that said, however, I do have some ideas about all of this that can share based upon my study.

    You asked first about the quote from Fee & Stuart. As for the percentages, I have no clue. However, I would say that the amount of material in a book about a certain theme may vary. Moreover, even if there are only small portions that speak directly to such a theme does not mean that it is less important. Let’s take the Pentateuch as an example, in which the law takes up the most (physical) space. Thus, it is important to the message of the Torah. However, from a compositional standpoint, there may be more importance placed upon other themes, even though they take up less space. An example would be the new covenant perspective that we spoke of in another post, right? In the prophets, such theological themes may be developed more where sermons have been brought together and reflected upon. An example that comes to my mind is the resultant message of Habakkuk that came when the poem of ch. 3 was added to the message of chs. 1, 2.

    As for the perspective of Duvall and Hays, they are right. The prophets (and I have in the mind the individuals preaching their messages to the people) were bringing before the people a call to repentance and warnings of judgment. At the same time, however, the process of taking these sermons from oral presentation to written text is latent with composition. That is, the very act of producing a book requires careful theological reflection. Thus, although the prophet himself may have been addressing a specific social situation, the book itself is composed in such a way as to reflect a certain theological perspective. This perspective, if we pay careful attention to the texts as we have them before us, provides a consistent link between the theology of the Pentateuch and the theology of the NT. More to the point, they seem to be one and the same.

    I think you are right that most see this distinction in Jonah. However, haven’t you heard it preached other ways, using Jonah even as a model preacher? How many times have you heard prophetic texts butchered by well-meaning evangelists who take the prophet’s sermon and turn it into an appeal for the gospel? There seems to be a disconnect between the two.

    As for Sailhamer’s position, I’m sure I don’t understand it completely, so I don’t know what I misunderstand :).

    Does any of this make sense?

    Blessings,
    Randy

  3. Fantastic Randy, I’m tracking with you all the way and yes I have heard a few too many sermons that butchered texts like Jonah (some dare I say by otherwise excellent expositors). However, I’m sure some folks in my congregation would say the same thing about some of my sermons. I rejoice in the fact that people only retain a small percentage of what they hear…that means they’ll forget the really bad ones after a while.

    By the way, I recently preached Habakkuk in one sermon (part of a series on the Minor Prophets) and your posts on the theme of Habakkuk were very instrumental in helping me work through that wonderful text. Speaking of, I think we might do a follow-up to your series on the “how-to’s” of preaching the OT. I’ve received a lot of comments about this series and the one persistent comment is “I’m tracking with it but I need additional help with knowing what OT preaching looks like in its final form.” Keep up the good work. Though the comments be few I know that a few hundred souls(many pastors) are reading your posts everyday.

  4. What the preacher finds is that it is the prophetic book that explicitly teaches new covenant ideas.

    I think this is the essence of what Sailhamer is on about in this article. You did a good job at catching the main thrust of his essay in your summary.

  5. Posted by Mark Hastings on July 29, 2007 at 5:50 am

    Is that a book or an article you are referring to by John Sailhamer? What is the citation? I’d be interested to read it myself.

    Thanks!

  6. Posted by Randy on July 29, 2007 at 7:01 pm

    This is an article that appears in a book. The title is in the first paragraph. These articles were put together in honor of Kaiser. Hope that helps.
    Randy

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