I chuckled when I read the words of R. C. Sproul in Table Talk, a publication of Ligonier Ministries. He said: “If you know six of the tribes (of Israel), you are probably considered a Bible scholar.” We may not particularly appreciate his comment, but there may be more than just a modicum of truth to the statement.
Exactly how well does the local church know its Old Testament? You know, things like covenant, law, goel, the “day of the Lord,” atonement and grace? For that matter, how often does the pulpit provide bedrock expositional preaching from Old Testament texts and subjects? When an Old Testament text is used, does the sermon’s content remain focused on the Old Testament story or does it merely serve as a convenient latch from which to hang what is decidedly a New Testament coat?
The pulpit and the pew are uncommonly quiet when it comes to Old Testament exposition. Outside of an occasional reference to a young David and his nine foot nemesis Goliath, or the umpteenth sermonic rehearsal of the powerful Samson who repeatedly escapes the clutches of a conniving Delilah, there does not seem to be a whole lot of ‘new’ ground being ploughed in Old Testament sermons.
W. A. Criswell concludes that it is “perhaps the most neglected area of the Bible in modern preaching,” and that when the Old Testament is used “… it is often only the text for some topical treatise that soon departs from its context” (Criswell, 293). Ouch!
A Love for Preaching
Pastors should love to preach, to make “present and appropriate to hearers the revelation of God” (Craddock, 51). My deep-seated conviction is that the distinctively uncommon occupation of the preacher is to proclaim Christ so that Christ be formed in man. Nothing is more life-giving, more urgent, more evocative, more pivotal or more relevant to the needs of the church than the impact of the Word and its authority. The challenge before the pastor is to resist trading the pulpit for a counselor’s shingle or an administrator’s desk, an all too common preoccupation and trend these days. It is not that these things are not necessary, but where does this leave the pulpit? James Daane, in his book Preaching with Confidence, strikes a note that every pastor needs to hear and heed:
When the pulpit is on the decline, the church is on the decline. When preaching is in crisis, the church is in crisis. And both crises stem from a failure to understand the nature of the divine word (Deane, 164).
John Bright’s pronouncement that “The church lives … in her preaching — always has, and always will” is not too extreme a statement (Bright, 164). Without a doubt, a low view of the pulpit can only lead to a low view of the Word. As Moody is reported to have said, “the best way to revive a church is to build a fire in the pulpit.” Let unction pervade the preacher.
A Love for Preaching the Old Testament
Since 77.2 percent of the revealed Word is Old Testament, pastors should also love to preach from this body of material — often! Be reminded of 2 Timothy 3:16. “All Scripture is God-breathed.” Apart from the obvious implications this statement has for the veracity of Scripture, it should be noted that the appeal is to the body of literature which Timothy had known from his childhood, namely the Old Testament. The first century Christians only had an Old Testament source, since the New Testament had yet to appear, and, as a young Jewish lad, Timothy spent his formative years learning and memorizing these sacred writings in the firm belief that they alone were able to make him wise.
Consider the account of creation in the book of “Beginnings” with its myriad of lights against the vault of heaven, the voice of the Lord in the midst of the thunder and lightening that erupted from Mt. Sinai, the moral roar of prophets like Amos against the hollow ritual of the Israelites. These are ripe with imagery and life — they begged to be preached.
God speaks through the Old Testament to people today about such things as broken relationships, prosperity, justice, the sanctity of life and obedience. When we focus on the Old Testament message, the richness and fullness of the New Testament shines with even greater incandescence and Christ is honored for He is embedded within its fabric, rooted in its soil and the fulfilment of all of its deep aspirations. The Old Testament is a dynamic, essential part of the Christian’s proclamation. It is contemporary, deserving of expositional attention and without it, our Christian experience is lopsided and incomplete.
Convictions about the Old Testament
Any tenable approach towards preaching the Old Testament text should rest on at least a few discernible theological convictions which help to motivate and direct the expositor in the weekly quest for divine bread for the congregation. Here are a few of my convictions.
The Bible is an essential unity. As Robert Dentan writes in Preface to Old Testament Theology:
For Christian faith the connection of the Old Testament with the New is integral and organic so that the two together form an indissoluble unity, the one being the necessary completion and fulfilment of the other (Dentan, 99).
Any dichotomous designs toward devaluing one portion of the revealed Word at the expense of the other is to debilitate the Scriptures and construct an unbridgeable chasm, for a valid methodology in preparing to preach from the Old can only be constructed on the basis of a commitment to an actual relationship between the Old Testament and the New.
Elizabeth Achtemeier, in tracing the ‘loss’ of the Old puts it bluntly into perspective:
The teachings of the simple Jesus were seen as the highest and eternally valid climax … and anything in the Old Testament which did not accord with such teaching was considered to be primitive, outdated, superseded, unchristian (Achtemeier, 33).
We possess one canon, not two. The ancient text has a single interpretation, though many applications. To suggest a text is open to several interpretations, is to rob it inferentially of its own integrity and open the Scriptures to numerous vistas of disclosed truth. And to whom shall we appeal to determine the veracity of the disclosure?
Such a single-minded position is not new. The Reformers practiced sensus literalis. When addressing the full sense of any Scriptures, the Westminster Confession of Faith (1646 A.D.), Chapter One, Article IX concludes it “is not manifold, but one.” Even the more modern Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, Article VII, written in November of 1982, notes that evangelicals “affirm the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite, and fixed.” The task of the exegete is to determine the author’s single intention and it is not always an easy one, as R. A. Knox reminds us:
The translator … feels constantly like Alice in Wonderland trying to play croquet with flamingoes for mallets and hedgehogs for balls. Words are forever eluding his grasp (Watson, 101).
Begin with the Old Testament’s theological pronouncements as the point of reference. By shaking down the Old Testament text first and foremost, a number of things are said: 1) It says I am serious about the Old Testament canon; 2) It allows the Old Testament to speak to me on its own terms, without interference; and 3) It reduces the amount of New Testament baggage I might wish to impose on the Old.
Finally, the Old Testament is in and of itself relevant and therefore should not be exploited to fit an unyielding hermeneutic which would try to ‘make’ it functional or relevant. Shame on all preachers who would twist and bend the Old Testament Scriptures like so much wax, to fit their imaginative hermeneutics and homiletics. Arguably, there are some apparent problems facing those who wish to preach from the Old: 1) morally “unredeeming” difficulties, 2) culturally different time warps, and 3) the apparent “untheologicalness” of the ancient text. But the Old Testament preacher has got to make his or her peace with those portions of the revealed Word.
A Functional Methodology
It is one thing to call for the pulpit to return to expositional preaching (the “Queen” of all preaching) and a reaffirmation of the Old Testament’s authority, but trumpeting the virtues of Old Testament expositional preaching is hardly enough. We must confront our reluctance, stare into the window of truth and set about changing our preaching habits once we put this journal of practical theology down. We need to “Do It!”
Such a conscious decision to revive Old Testament expositional preaching easily launches other vessels into the threatening seas of the unknown, namely “How does one begin?” The question is a good one, and underscores a lingering malady among some pastors and many Bible College students — the lack of a methodology. Instead of setting sail through uncharted seas with a compass, sextant and initial destination, some prefer to cast caution to the wind and let mother nature, or the “Lord,” drive the ship in any direction it wishes, believing this to be the more spiritually prudent course. At times, that works, and the Lord “comes through.”
However, let us then apply the same logic to the family surgeon practicing this same routine on you and your family in the course of a year. Would you endorse his methodology? Would you want to be the patient (or victim)? I am not advocating that the form become the master of the material. I am asserting that our attack must be ordered and clear; one that deals honestly with God’s Word and helps us to confront the biblical text as it really exists.
An army of cognitive and mechanical skills are involved in the crafting of a sermon. There are any number of exegetical processes available to the preacher offering helpful, insightful Old Testament investigative procedures that add homiletical warmth for the heart-seeking exegete. Douglas Stuart’s Old Testament Exegesis: A Primer for Students and Pastors is an example.
Unfortunately, many of the exegetical procedures offered in books are very complex and tiresomely tedious, “suspiciously filled with endless lists that only an academician could have dreamed up,” as one student candidly reported to me one day. Stuart’s book is a prime example of this lingering problem. In it the exegete faces 12 sections and 49 subsections and even the author’s abbreviated version comprises no less than 23 steps. Try committing that to memory!
A growing concern among Old Testament students here at Eastern over the lack of a reasonable methodological preaching strategy that was functionally workable and uncomplicated, created a simple model. It is not intended to eclipse the more lavish methods available. Its value here is in its simplicity and mnemonic adaptation.
Consisting of 3 steps and 8 sub-steps, the process permits the exegete to retain control and not be overwhelmed by excessive procedural requisites demanding satisfaction, while at the same time facilitating an approach that is functionally retainable. The pattern is as follows:
1. Concentration (Interpretation)
a. Scope
b. Setting
c. Structure
d. Syntax
2. Continuation (Amplification)
a. Biblical Analysis
b. Theological Analysis
c. Thematic Analysis
3. Communication (Application)
a There and Then vs. Here and Now
The Pattern
Seen visually, the pattern conforms to the shape and form of an hourglass — broad at the top and bottom, narrow in the center. So the exegete must begin with a broad investigation of the Scriptures, move to a more refined, restricted focus, and eventually fan out again so that at the point of the application the sermon has a broad yet poignant application to the audience. The limits of this article only permit a cursory overview here of some essential features.
Concentration (Interpretation)
John Stott says, “Every sermon should in some sense be an exposition of Scripture in its context.” Therefore as biblicists we must begin with the Old Testament text itself and investigate it fully. Four steps are suggested.
A. Scope
Read several translations to get a feel for the passage with its possible nuances and note any possible variations in the readings (e.g. I Sam. 6:19). Determine the limits of the pericope by paying close attention to the circles of context. Like the ever expanding circles produced by a pebble dropped in a pool, Scripture should be examined for its remote, intermediate and immediate context.
B. Setting
Conduct a geographical, historical and social analysis of the passage, for the life of the text is embedded within a certain environment. For example, “Is the Book of Lamentations the result of a prophet’s nervous breakdown?” Determine what that environment is.
C. Structure
A literary analysis of the material is important, for after all, the Old Testament is an anthology brimming with countless literary types. Is the genre you are intending to preach from historical narrative, apocalyptic, elegy, poetic, proverbial, lyrical? The exegete does well to remember that each of these claim their own characteristics and require interpretative sensitivity if they are to be explicated properly.
D. Syntax
Syntax (syn – “together”; Tassein – “to arrange”) involves determining the sense of a text by investigating the arrangement of the words in the sentences (e.g. Is ‘judge’ a verb or a noun?) and the interaction of those words with each other. This is the narrow part of the hour glass. Should we understand “everything” (NIV) in Genesis 7:21, 22, 23 to be phenomenological (man’s perspective) or noumenological (God’s perspective)? Lexicology (the definition of a word) is important.
Continuation (Amplification)
Here the focus is no longer narrow and acute. Instead, the preacher can now content himself with a wider and broader investigation of the Scriptures.
A. Biblical Analysis
Does the rest of the Bible (Old and New) offer any further commentary or shed additional light on your text and subject matter? Is this material implicit or explicit? Do these other parts of Scripture ratify, modify, abrogate or fulfill the text?
B. Theological Analysis
Walter Kaiser speaks of this as “unpack(ing) the theological meaning” of a text. What is the larger theological concern of the passage chosen? For example, are the Joseph narratives of Genesis 37, 39-50 intended to provide the reader with simply an endless reporting of the patriarch’s misfortunes and fortunes or can it be that God’s providential, preserving care of Joseph and all of Israel is the theological preoccupation? Determine whether the text is concerning itself with eschatology, soteriology, theology proper, et cetera.
C. Thematic Analysis
What is the emerging theme of the passage? Is there a divine-human encounter occurring where faith and unbelief struggle for supremacy (e.g. Gen. 28:10-22). Is there a horizontal drama unfolding that pitches obedience against disobedience (e.g. Gen. 38), purity against impurity (e.g. Gen. 39).
Communication (Application)
Perhaps Flip Wilson, alias Reverend Leroy said it best: “Preachin’ is like shootin’ craps: if you don’t make your point, it ain’t nuthin’.”
A. Then and There vs. Here and Now
Application of the sermon is the problematic of preaching from the Old Testament and it is here that most of us tend to “sweat it out.” If the Old Testament is to address the modern church with immediacy and authority (and it must), then the faithful preacher will want to move from what the text ‘meant’ then and there to a faithful application of that text’s meaning here and now to the congregations current human dilemma. If the preacher does not offer a meaningful, relevant interpretation of the text in the modern idiom of the day, without diminishing or destroying its intended meaning, then I doubt the pulpit has done its job properly. The B.C. message must be made A.D.
The Primacy of Preaching
The canonical prophets placed high premium on preaching, as is evident from the life and times of Amos (5:21), Hosea (4-14), Isaiah (1:10ff), Jeremiah (7,26) and countless others. Likewise, preaching plays an important role in the worship of the church today. Pastors must give high priority to good preaching; preaching that is rooted in the text, that faithfully expounds the text and deliberately seeks to declare its present-tenseness to its audience.
The Old Testament is not to be relegated to subservient status in the Evangelical community. It is the preacher’s task to help the congregation thrill to its history, warm to its grace and create in the worshipers a renewed determination to return frequently to the ancient texts for more prolonged visits.
Biblical preaching stems from a conviction that the Bible has something of supreme importance to say to me and to my audience. This includes the Old Testament text. The modern dilemma of the loss of Old Testament expositional preaching in the evangelical community needs to be countered in our pulpits.
This can be answered in part by the pulpit’s willingness to 1) affirm the credibility and abiding authority of the Old Testament by preaching from it more frequently, 2) begin to demonstrate the cogent relevance of the Old Testament to our community of faith with its variegated needs; 3) employ methods in exegesis which are God honoring, so allowing the ancient text its own voice first (not a New Testament voice first); and 4) prove the authority of the Old Testament as an existential reality by resolutely determining to handle the whole counsel of God.
The slide away from the biblical and expositional preaching of the Old Testament can be reversed and the Old Testament phoenix can rise from the ashes if we will begin to take seriously its canonicity and enduring relevance. The pulpit needs to restore the Old Testament to its proper place, for it is the root system which sustains the New Testament tree.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth. The Old Testament and the Proclamation of the Gospel. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1973.
Bright, John. The Authority of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967.
Craddock, Fred B. Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985.
Criswell, W. A. “Preaching from the Old Testament,” In Traditions and Testament: Essays in Honor of Charles Less Feinberg. eds. John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg. Chicago: Moody Press, 1981.
Daane, James. Preaching with Confidence: A Theological Essay on the Power of the Pulpit. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1967.

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