Preaching OT Narrative (Pt 2)

Sorry about the long break in this series . . . I have been busy preparing for four classes in the Fall. What brings me back to the topic is a series of sermons I have heard about the attributes of God. Given the topic, many of the sermons were based upon OT texts. I have appreciated their attempt to explain God’s attributes as revealed in a specific text, but needless to say, some have renewed my concern with how the OT is preached.

I stated in the first post on this subject that the one best equipped to preach OT narrative is one versed in OT/biblical theology. Achieving this, however, is a difficult task, because learning OT theology is more than coming to terms with “big” questions such as the role of the law, literal creation, etc. Moreover, preaching OT narrative is more than trying to emulate the hermeneutics of the apostles. The preaching that I have in mind begins less with antecedent theology (a term I have recently seen in an article by Schreiner) or canonical theology than with a proper appreciation of the narrative as a text.

The biblical preaching I have in mind is not an attempt to take all of the Bible’s theology and cram it into every narrative passage that we preach or teach. Rather, the written text, which we evangelicals believe is inspired graphe, dictates its theology. This “textual theology” is the theology I have in mind. That is to say, a question that is often overlooked even by well-meaning preachers and teachers is, “What are the theological ramifications of the text as it has been set before me?”

For example, I could imagine many preachers using the events surrounding Samuel’s birth (1Sa 1-2:10) as an opportunity to show how Hannah models proper endurance of trials. However, such a treatment of this text (while perhaps encouraging to a congregation and maybe legitimate) would fail to take into account the use of the story within the context of the book of Samuel, which really brought out in Hannah’s prayer (specifically 2:10).

Such indications of an author’s greater theological purpose would enliven our sermons and educate our congregation in the “whole counsel of God.”

Dated…but Good

Recently in preparation for an introduction to the Psalter, I ran across this quote from Brevard Childs (IOTS, 523). Though this is not a recent work, I found it interesting and worth sharing:

With all due respect to Gunkel, the truly great expositors for probing to the theological heart of the Psalter remain Augustine, Kimchi, Luther, Calvin, the long forgotten Puritans buried in Spurgeon’s Treasury, the haunting sermons of Donne, and the learned and pious reflections of de Muis, Francke and Geier. Admittedly these commentators run the risk, which is common to all interpretation, of obscuring rather than illuminating the biblical text, but because they stand firmly within the canonical context, one can learn from them how to speak anew the language of faith.

You would have to read the whole section to get the full impact of what he is saying, but any thoughts?

Preaching OT Narrative

Although my intent is to make posts primarily concerning exegesis, I recently read a post lamenting the difficulty faced in preaching narrative portions of the Bible, specifically those of the Old Testament. I share the lament. Therefore, I would like to make a few observations—which fall short of a methodology but set a foundation for later comments I would like to make—that I have found helpful.

I used to be under the impression that a man could only preach OT narrative if he were. . .

(1) a gifted storyteller. That is, only someone who could keep an audience riveted with the way he told the story would be successful.

But, I’ve learned that many men who are so gifted can abuse the text by hypothesizing about the thoughts, motives, and circumstances of individuals in the narrative. In an attempt to be interesting and contemporary, the text is displaced as the preacher moves beyond the narrative world into a world of his own imagination. Being a gifted storyteller is helpful, but it is not the be-all, end-all of preaching OT narrative.

(2) a discerning psychologist. That is, my narrative-preaching teeth were cut on men who could develop the character of the biblical men and women and apply it to our times.

But, I’ve learned that the OT narratives normally have intended meanings that are far beyond the character of people within them. This is not to say that this is always the case (e.g., Ruth), only that there is a tendency to abuse this.

(3) an archaeologist and historian. That is, to really get the details of the story correct would take years and years of drudgery through history books and archaeological magazines (or at least through good commentaries that did all of that for you).

But, I’ve learned that minute (superfluous?) details of Ancient Near Eastern culture and practice, which are wielded in an attempt to clarify the intent of the passage, often cloud the picture for the listener. To be more specific, these details are so intriguing that the mind of the hearer is drawn away into history and archaeology and not necessarily the theological intent of the author.

(4) a Jew. That is, who in their right mind would bother with these stories except to provide illustrations for sermons from the NT? Or, how in the world can I overcome my lack of familiarity with Hebrew customs and teaching?

But, I’ve learned that with proper diligence, OT narrative can become not so much a burden to the pulpit (or SS classroom) but a blessing. In fact, it is of utmost importance that it be preached.

I hope to post more on this topic, but here’s a start…

The guiding principle when I approach any OT text, but especially narrative, is to remember a statement from Rolf Rendtorff: “Das Alte Testament ist ein theologisches Buch.” In other words, I believe that the one most prepared to preach OT narrative is the biblical theologian, or at least one who understands the broad strokes of OT theology. This allows the preacher to weave the narrative before his people into the greater theological context of the book and OT. It helps to be a good storyteller and a crafty exegete, but what will help guide your preaching is to keep the theology of the OT before you and your congregation. Is this difficult? Yes. Can it still be interesting? It must.

More to come…

Some Thoughts on Habakkuk

The righteous shall live by faith.

For most Bible students, that sentence may be the only thing that comes to mind about the book of Habakkuk. This is understandable given its multiple uses in the New Testament (Rom 1:17; Gal 3:11; Heb 10:38). We who hold to the doctrine of sola fide cherish this great truth, and for good reason.

But is that the only thing worth cherishing in the book of Habakkuk? In the words of Paul, me genoito . . . By no means! The great truths of Habakkuk come to life as one discovers the message of the entire book.

The book opens with the question of how long the Lord would allow his servant to cry for help and yet receive no salvation. The Lord quickly interrupts the prophet’s lament and heightens the situation with this declaration:

Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
(Habakkuk 1:5)

What is this “work” that God is going to do? In the immediate context, the “work” is God raising up the Chaldeans, a violent and impetuous nation, to carry out judgment upon His disobedient people. This understanding seems clear from the first half of the book.

However, this is not the end of the story, for we see another instance of the Lord’s “work” in Habakkuk 3. There the prophet prays that the Lord would revive His “work” and make it known “in the midst of the years.” The work called for in the prayer of chapter 3 is none other than an act of “mercy” (3:2) and a renewal of God’s work of “salvation” (3:13). In fact, Habakkuk takes joy in the God of his salvation (3:18). The “work” that God was doing was more than an act of “wrath” (3:2); it was an act of “salvation.” Thus, we see the purpose of the book: The righteous person will live by faith, patiently awaiting God’s work of salvation.

As for us who live on this side of the cross, Paul agrees. In Acts 13:41, Paul clearly understood Habakkuk’s message. The “work” that God was doing was none other than the salvation that was to be found in God’s “anointed” (a term mentioned in Hab 3:13). The events surrounding the coming of Jesus, the Messiah, were the fulfillment of the book of Habakkuk.

Habakkuk had cried for God to rescue him from a people of violence, from the consequences of God’s judgment, and had committed to trust the God of his salvation. We have the privilege of enjoying the fulfillment of Habakkuk’s prayer. The salvation that Habakkuk was patiently waiting for is ultimately found in none other than the Son of David, through whom men are forgiven, through whom men are made righteous. Habakkuk was willing to wait patiently in faith for God to complete His work. Are we?