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Preaching from the Prophets

By John H. Sailhamer

Preparing to preach from the prophets involves many of the same issues dealt with in other types of preaching. These are usually grouped around headings such as hermeneutical, exegetical, theological, and homiletical. Along with those issues, the task of preaching from the prophets has its own unique problems. The underlying question of my discussion 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 and, if so, how one should identify this message as such within the prophetic writings.

Who are the Prophets?

Though there are many ways such a subject might be approached, the fact that the prophetic writings come to us as inspired Scripture (2 Tim. 3:16) obliges us to take seriously their final written form and to strive all the more to understand them as a function of the meaning of a “book.”

It is our contention that when viewed from the perspective of the prophets as authors, it is possible to see in their books a line of thought already moving in the same theological direction as the New Testament books themselves. That is to say that in the composition of the prophetic books, one can already detect a development of the gospel and the "new covenant" identical in most respects to the gospel Jesus preached (Luke 22:20; Rom. 16:25-26). This was long before the coming of Christ.

From such a vantage point there is considerable agreement between what it means to preach from the prophets and to preach from the New Testament. Both involve understanding texts and both are basically exegetical in nature. Most importantly, both turn on the same theological foci that form the basis of a Christian theology: covenant blessing, faith, and law, to mention only three. This suggests that by the time of the completion of the Old Testament Canon (Tanakh), many or all of the central New Testament themes had already played themselves out in full measure within the books of the Old Testament themselves.

Thus the notion of a "prophetic book," which first rose to prominence in the "making" of the canonical "book of Moses" (Dan. 9:10), carries with it unavoidable implications for preaching from the prophets. For example, with the rise of the prophetic "book," long-standing religious ideals and yearnings in Israel — such as knowing God’s will and experiencing his presence — came increasingly to be mediated through Scripture rather than more traditional religious structures such as the temple and the priesthood. In spite of their deep roots in the religious heritage of ancient Israel, internal evidence of the theological nature of the structure of the Hebrew Bible as a whole (Tanakh) suggests that such institutions were rapidly being replaced by a new emphasis on the individual as a reader who meditates on Scripture "as a book."2

Reading the Bible had itself become an act of worship (Neh. 8). As we have suggested elsewhere,3 the "making" of the Bible into a book was not a gradual and nebulous literary-historical process but was rather a real historical act that occurred in a moment of time not unlike the historical events recounted in the Bible itself. History, as such, had become a way of experiencing divine reality and spiritual truth on an individual level, particularly as that history was recounted by the Bible as experienced by individuals.

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