Archive for February, 2007

Preaching the OT in Light of Its Culture

In his essay, “Preaching the Old Testament in Light of Its Culture,” Timothy S. Laniak gives some practical advice for developing a systematic understanding of a passage’s “contexture.” As defined by Laniak, contexture is understanding the ancient world “in terms of its fundamental values and the interconnectedness of its institutions” (138). One’s understanding of this contexture allows the text to be read and understood first with respect to its original meaning and context. It is only then that the preacher should begin to make appropriate implications for his contemporary audience.

Coming to terms with the values and institutions of the ancient world means becoming familiar with various layers of the biblical world, such as geography, history, culture, politics, economy, and ideology. Thus, the preacher must enter into (or at least read often) the disciplines of historical-geography, anthropology, sociology, etc. Laniak gives a plethora of resources that a preacher may want to consult, such as the following:

  • Historical Geography of the Holy Land by G. A. Smith
  • Archaeology of the Land of the Bible: 10,000–586 B.C.E. by Amihai Mazar
  • Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament ed. by James B. Pritchard
  • Old Testament Parallels: Laws and Stories from the Ancient Near East by Victor H. Matthews & Don C. Benjamin
  • A History of Israel by Walter C. Kaiser Jr.
  • Life in Biblical Israel by Philip J. King & Lawrence E. Stager
  • Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land through the Five Books of Moses by Bruce Feiler

There are many others that he recommends and that you may know of as well. In fact, there are many resources for the computer through the various companies that would be helpful in this regard.

How this relates to sermon preparation is rather labor-intensive. For example, Laniak believes that one should first come to term with the literary context of the passage by reading it several times. After getting the “main thrust” of the passage, one should then move on to begin “to align your preunderstanding with that of the ancient readers” (149). This is done, for example, by reading a history book (such as Kaiser’s) and perhaps following the story on an atlas map. As such, you are then ready to list some background topics that might help you understand the passage. As an example, if you were preaching Ruth 1, you would want to read articles in Bible dictionaries, encyclopedias, or handbooks that cover the following topics: “death, grief, kingship relations, interethnic marriage, domestic roles, famine, travel, Moabites, and village life in the early Iron Age” (149). [I’m tired just typing all that, much less reading all of it.] You would really need to be patient to do this type of study on a regular, weekly basis. To be honest, if this is the expectation, there is no wonder so many preachers feel unqualified to read and preach the OT.

Besides the practicality of time, Laniak leaves me with one question: “To which inspired source should I turn to get the definitive explanation(s) of ancient culture and history?” Granted, it’s not really a question but a point I’m trying to make. I understand the reasoning that tidbits of history may make a typical sermon “come alive” to the listeners, but one danger in saturating your congregation with interesting historical facts is that it sometimes tends to divert their attention (in a subtle way) from the text before them.

If something needs to go in your sermon preparation time, the first thing I would jettison is the mounds and mounds of material on ANE manners and customs. I would much rather hear a preacher who has been saturated with the text (preferably in its original languages) and really understands its point(s) than one who has been reading history books and looking at pictures of the holy land all week. There is little that you can do as a preacher that is more productive than to read and meditate upon the text itself for extended periods of time. Attempting to research every sermon as if writing an OT thesis is a sure way (1) to stress yourself out, (2) to wear yourself out, and (3) to take yourself away from ministering in your home and church.

How do you guys balance this in your preparation for preaching?

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)

Question on Plagiarism

Charles writes Expository Thoughts with the following question. Everyone is welcome to respond in the comments.

A question about preaching sermons. Since plagiarism has come up from time to time. And the idea is to give credit for quotes, etc that you use in your sermons. How do you give credit to Greek Workbooks, Theological Dictionaries, Linguistic Workbooks. You can footnote those in your sermon notes, but how do you address the references to the people? I might use more than ten references in one sermons.


Pride in the Pulpit

In Matthew 6, Jesus warns of practicing your righteousness for the purpose of being noticed by men (v. 1), specifically in the areas of giving (vv. 2-4), praying (vv. 5-15), and fasting (vv. 16-18). By way of application, as pastors I suppose we could add preaching. How often are we tempted to perform this “act of righteousness” for the purpose of being heard and esteemed by our congregation? How often is the hidden motive of our heart to be appreciated as a good preacher? How often does our goal have more to do with our own reputation than with the glory of God? 

It was the glory of God that came to mind as I reflected on this passage several years ago. It occurred to me that if the ultimate purpose for which God created us was to use us as a means of bringing glory to Himself, is it not, then, the ultimate perversion when we turn that purpose around and seek to use Him and His Word as a means of glorifying ourselves? Isn’t that what we’re doing when we stand up in the pulpit and pursue the accolades of men rather than the exaltation of His name? May God have patience with us as we seek to preach for His glory and to lose ourselves in the process.  

Sermon Evaluation

It probably goes without saying that personal sermon evaluation is one of the hardest disciplines to grasp. I identify with what my friend Rick (Holland) has often said, “after many sermons I feel ready to resign promising myself never to preach again.” A litany of questions flood the mind after delivering a sermon: Did I preach Christ with clarity? Did I clearly set-forth the meaning of God’s Word? Did I balance strong exhortation with loving encouragement? Did I leave the flock hungry or did I fill their plates? Questions abound and multiply.

To be sure I am convinced that there is a way in which a preacher can live that disqualifies him from ever preaching again (cf. 1 Cor.9:27, a topic for a later post). In short I believe this is a reflection of what he cultivates in his heart on a regular basis (whether holy or hellish). For added measure, no preacher should be without a shared accountability wherein brothers in Christ are provided free access to his “hidden life.”

However, I believe such accountability should extend to a pastor’s preaching as well. I realize many will disagree with what I’m about to say but I see the benefits of having men around me who will give me honest feedback about my preaching. I have seen pastors who surround themselves with “yes” men who never truly experience the sharpening process of shared leadership. In my church it is my fellow elders who give me this feedback. They do so with love, patience and carefully measured words. One of my elders prayed for three months before he shared a particular concern with me and my life is richer for it.

I often think back to seminary days where we would have the torture device known as “preaching labs” whereby fellow students and an instructor would provide feedback on sermons we preached in their midst. The “advice” would often range from silly to the truly helpful. However now I have a real preaching lab that is conducted every Sunday morning in real time with real people (btw: seminary students are not real people). What better place to measure progress and growth for the preacher. Here are a few thoughts that may be helpful and I would love to hear your feedback on this:

  • Take time to evaluate a couple of messages at each elder’s meeting. Ask hard questions and listen to everything that is said without getting into a defensive posture or argument.
  • Meet with younger men in the ministry and let them help you pick apart your sermon over breakfast. These are the guys who are filled-up with theology and lots of reading, if they didn’t get your sermon then few others probably did.
  • Go to thoughtful and trusted laymen and ask them how they are growing through the pulpit ministry. Ask them what you can do to be more effective as a communicator and teacher of the Word. Do you have any bad habits that make listening difficult or distract?
  • Here’s a hard one: do you preach too long (or too short)? Good and godly men disagree on the “how long” question. Piper rarely preaches past thirty minutes and MacArthur has rarely preached under an hour. I recently came to grips with the fact that I just preach far too long more often than not. There is nothing holy about wearing people out beyond what they can endure so the preacher must measure his economy of words and make them count.
  • Seek out the prayer warriors in your church and have them pray for all aspects of the sermon preparation and delivery.
  • I often work on my sermon up to the last minute, many times editing in the pew just before I preach. However, try to allow some time between final prep and the actual delivery. I often relish the Saturday’s where I can spend the day away from my notes and think through the various aspects of tomorrow’s sermon. Sometimes I only have an hour in the early Sunday AM to do this but it’s always helpful.
  • I would be interested to hear your thoughts and ideas on sermon evaluation.

Preaching Poetry: Psalms & Proverbs

Duane A. Garrett tackles in short order some techniques for preaching from the Psalter and from Proverbs. Garrett’s primary argument within the chapter is the importance of structure, which he gleaned from Walter C. Kaiser. In short, their rule is that “the structure of the passage should determine the structure or content of the message” (101).

In my opinion, this is the most valuable point that I have seen up to this point in the book, and I am surprised that the other chapters have not emphasized this much. All the genres we have studied so far, inasmuch as they are texts, have some type of structure that the author has provided. This is vital, and as Garrett says, it is absolutely essential to preaching psalms and proverbs. For example, many times one’s four-point preaching outline may mirror the four-stanza structure of the psalm. Granted, at times this may be impossible for particular psalms and some of proverbs (e.g. acrostic psalms, extremely long poems, the misc proverbs in chs. 10ff.), but most of the time working hard to develop a structural analysis of a Hebrew poem will be worth the effort. As he points out, for maximum benefit, it will be necessary to analyze the poem in the original language, but not impossible in English.

The following summarizes some of the helpful ideas and examples from the chapter:

Preaching Proverbs

Many times, the preacher will be able to discern a clear-cut strategy in the wisdom poems found in Prov 1–9. For example, Garrett provides a sample analysis of Pr 2, which is an incredible piece of poetry (p. 105). It is crafted in such a way that it even shows a clear structure in English versions. Moreover, he gives a chiastic outline of the poem of Pr 31, in which the center of the chiasm is v. 23. Go read it; it really changes the way the poem should be understood.

In contrast to the clear structure of wisdom poems, the preacher may be at a loss for preaching the other section of the book, which primarily deals with aphorisms. With lack of structure, a sermon (or series of sermons) on a particular topic may be the way to go. That way, the preacher can weave together proverbs that have a consistent theme into a coherently structures sermon. However, as Garrett points out, there are places within Prov 10–30 that do reveal structure (e.g. 10:1–5 with its message of prosperity and security).

In addition, I would add that the preacher must be careful when preaching from this section of the book to be consistent in presenting these proverbs in reference to the fear of the Lord, which is the theological theme of the book. It would be easy to forget this, given the practical aspect of many of these quaint saying.

Preaching Psalms

Much of what was said above would apply here as well, since the basic principle holds: preach what the text (structurally) gives you. For example, Ps 23 neatly breaks into two sections. Vv. 1–4 should be explained under the image of shepherding; vv. 5–6 under the image of a banquet host (see also the two-fold structure of Ps 1). Furthermore, he gives the following important advice:

  • Form criticism (i.e. breaking the psalms into types such as hymns, Torah psalms, etc.) has its value, but on the whole he finds it not so helpful for the preacher.
  • Meter in Hebrew poetry should be disregarded.
  • Don’t restrict messianic implications only to those psalms that are typically classified as messianic.

To this last point, I would add that Ps 2 has set the context (hermeneutical lens) for the Psalter, so we should expect messianic references throughout. Don’t be surprised when you find them, but again, let the text itself dictate it as such.

Any thoughts or advice?


Enigmatic or Paradigmatic?

Not to add any fuel to the volatile situation that has drawn some attention around here, but the next chapter in Preaching the Old Testament is “Preaching from the Law.” In this chapter, Douglas K. Stuart tackles the unenviable task of showing the role and merit of new covenant preaching from the old covenant law. He (unfortunately) does not give a how-to article replete with multiple examples but rather addresses the more general issue. Stuart’s solution to this enigma is framed around three sections:

Why We Avoid Preaching the Law

This short section makes a great point: Many times preachers avoid preaching the law because their parishioners demand immediate application. Therefore, with the pressing need to be relevant, difficult passages of Scripture are avoided because the preacher doesn’t want attendance to dwindle or (even worse) to lose his job. Anybody been there?

Why We Shouldn’t Avoid Preaching the Law

Despite the fact that the church is under the new covenant, we still must desire to please God. However, pleasing God is not done by adherence to the Mosaic Law but rather “by following Christ through the help of God’s Spirit” (89). Reading and preaching the OT law shows us what God likes and dislikes, the standards that He has for those who are His. Stuart summarizes:

Those who follow Christ must recognize that the Pentateuchal law is not our covenant law…. But this does not mean that the law somehow ceases to be the Word of God for us. (89)

How to Preach the Law in Principle

In the heart of his thesis, Stuart’s answer to preaching the law is to correctly understand the law as paradigmatic. That is, in principle, ancient law codes were never intended to give comprehensive sets of laws that covered every aspect of life. Unlike our modern law codes that have any number of loopholes, ancient law codes provided principles by which judges were to come to reasonable conclusions. For example (from Stuart’s article), when the OT law states that a child who attacks his father or mother should be put to death (Ex 21:15), one who attacked his grandmother would not be excused on the technicality that his offense was not mirrored in the law precisely. Rather, this specific law was meant to be understood paradigmatically as a reflection of the more general expectations of the Ten Commandments as well as the two overriding principles of loving God and your neighbor.

The impetus for his conclusions he takes from Jesus’ words in Mt 5:17–20. He reasons as follows:

Jesus both required and empowered us to preach the law—not as our covenant, because he made a new one in his blood that supercedes the old…, but as principles derived from paradigms to guide us into holy living under his new covenant: an obligation for every disciple, and therefore a preaching responsibility for every expositor of the Word. (99)

Stuart has given a very practical way (although not unique to him) of preaching the OT law. In my opinion, the only downside of his view, which focuses on making the law applicable to the new covenant reader, is how the law is meant to be understood within the context of the Pentateuch. John Sailhamer, from whom we will hear about preaching the prophets in this series, gives some thoughts on this in his Pentateuch as Narrative, among other places. If you don’t have this book, I would highly encourage your to make it your next purchase, especially if you plan to preach anything from the Torah. Taking this into account may have some impact on the way the law is preached, as well.

Recommunication of Biblical Narrative

Our journey through Preaching the Old Testament brings us next to Jeffrey D. Arthurs’ article, “Preaching the Old Testament Narratives.” This is a topic that is receiving much attention these days, especially in the blogosphere. Here at Expository Thoughts, Paul has already addressed this topic here, and elsewhere I have addressed it here, here, and here. So, we won’t spend too much time on the topic.

Arthurs’ thesis, which reminds me of something my old friend Dan Dumas would say, is this:

Paying attention to how the text communicates helps us understand how we can recommunicate.

That is, to preach OT narrative well, the preacher must understand how it is constructed literarily in such a way as to persuade “by way of art, not argument” (74). Thus, Arthurs believes that narratives are more than theology, they are literary-rhetorical texts. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the preacher to understand how the literary devices of plot, character, and setting affect the rhetorical impact of the text.


As defined by Arthurs, plot is “the causally linked chain of events in a story that moves a conflict from disequilibrium to resolution” (75). Giving attention, then, to the details of how the story is purposefully developed by the author allows the preacher to retell the story remembering that “much of the rhetorical force of narrative—suspense and engagement—lies in plot.” He thus exhorts, “Leverage the power the Lord has already put into the text” (79). One practical way he gives to do this is to retell the story as it is presented in the text, with few interruptions. Waiting until the end of the story to bring home the ultimate point would be rhetorically a way to do this.


Character is “the depiction of the persons in the story, including all of their physical, psychological, social, and spiritual attributes” (79). For the preacher, it is important to note the textual clues that are significant in developing character, e.g. names and titles of individuals, physical descriptions, and foils (such as Orpah or Lot).


The time and place of a narrative, i.e. its setting, serves two rhetorical functions: sparking one’s imagination and associating a narrative with the larger context of Scripture. I agree completely with the latter function, but I would be more cautious than Arthurs in appealing to the imagination of those reading the text or hearing my sermon. In light of the nature of texts, such quotes as the following make me a little nervous:

Readers of Old Testament narrative hear the sounds of wind in the desert, smell the aromas of the temple, and feel the lurch of the waves shove the tiny ships of that day. (83)

For the preacher unaccustomed to preaching (or for that matter reading) OT narrative with recourse to its literary devices, there are a plethora of contemporary sources out there, especially in the growing area of the literary approach. A simple search of Amazon or the like would reveal how much there is out there. However, let me give you some resources that have been beneficial to me. One of the most basic, helpful articles I have read is the following:

  • Simon Bar-Efrat. “Some Observations on the Analysis of Structure in Biblical Narrative,” Vetus Testamentum 30 (1980): 154–73.

This article is a great place to start before going to his book, Narrative Art in the Bible, or to Alter’s book, The Art of Biblical Narrative. For the preacher who may want to stretch himself a little, I recommend the following:

  • Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

Or for the even more daring…

  • Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative: A Study in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Hermeneutics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1974).

As the title states, Frei’s monograph is not a how-to, but rather a study in hermeneutics. It is sure to challenge all who read it.

Preaching from the Historical Books

Paul, I’m sorry for posting on top of you…didn’t realize until it was too late. Everyone, please read the great quote that Paul gives below.

In chapter 3 of Preaching the Old Testament, Carol M. Kaminski, Assistant Professor of OT at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, gives some basic thoughts on preaching from the historical books, which would include Joshua through Kings in the Hebrew Bible as well as Ruth, Ezra/Nehemiah, and Chronicles in our English versions. From her perspective, these books should be preached from a theological and historical perspective, over against personalizing, moralizing, and/or allegorizing them. Let’s take these one at a time…

First, I could not agree with Kaminski more when she states that “these books are not simply narrating history—they are telling a theological story that is communicated through narrative” (59). Thus, our sermons should not simply be recounting historical events within an outline designed to bring moral principles to our 21st-century audience. I have in mind here the multiple series of sermons I have heard throughout my life about leadership and building the walls from Nehemiah, not to mention abuses of such stories as David and Goliath. In light of such abuses, Kaminski is right to call for preaching that is careful to place the narrative within the “redemptive story” of the Bible.

As a helpful example of this, Kaminski uses the story of Jericho, of which she correctly surmises that the intent of the story is not that God has promised that the “walls” of our life will fall down. As she points out, to preach the story that way could possibly give false hope to those who hear it: What happens if their “walls” don’t fall down? Are they not having enough faith? She rightly concludes:

While the story of Jericho clearly underscores the importance of faith, it is ultimately a story about God and his faithfulness. We can affirm that the God who was faithful to Joshua . . . is our God. (61)

Her points here and in this section of the chapter are well-taken. We who preach these books must place them within the theological context of the Bible. I would add to her comments only the following.

It is true that we must keep in mind the overarching promises and theological foci of the OT (and perhaps NT) while preparing and preaching these books, but I believe we must also give due diligence to the theological themes developed by the author(s) of the individual books. That is, these texts, written by authors, have particular purposes for which they were written. Thus, we must also ask the question, In what way has the author of this text conveyed the theological point he wants me, the reader, to understand? The way we answer this question is to observe carefully how the book(s) as a whole has been written (or composed) and then to ask how the story at hand fits into the author’s purpose. In other words, I believe that the historical books should be preached compositionally. This will arise again in this series, so I will make further comments on this later.

Second, Kaminski believes that the recent trend of reading the Bible as story has taken away from the priority of historical concerns and that preaching these books entails researching and implementing historical details inherent to the text. Her focus here is that these books contain stories that are only understood and must be preaching “in the ancient world of the Old Testament” (69).

This is an area of study that I happen to disagree with Kaminski, and I would like to make a more detailed post of what I have learned in this area at a later time. Suffice it to say, the relationship between text and event (or text and history) is far less simple than what Kaminski explains. I believe that preaching the text of the historical books means just that, preaching the text. The basis for my view on this, which again I hope to flesh out at a later time, is that it is the text that is inspired, not some historical recreation of the events described in the text.

With that said, I would conclude by saying that Kaminski’s chapter is very helpful, if for nothing more than reminding us that the historical books make theological statements. They do not simply give a historical record of what happened in a culture far removed from ours.

Narrative is next…

Interlude (importance of preaching OT narrative)

Often I read Old Testament scholars who treat the biblical text as if it has minimal value. When that happens I recall what Gilbert Porter, a Contemporary Novels teacher, told a class at the University of Missouri: “We take these novels seriously because they teach us how to live.” Then I wonder why a biblical scholar cannot take an Old Testament narrative as seriously, and with as much reverence, as Porter took Catcher in the Rye or other novels.

Paul House, “The Value of Old Testament Narratives: A Personal Reflection” in The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2:3 (Fall 1998).

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